A Call to Divine Obedience over Civil Obedience
By Rev. Dr. Aaron Rock
This is the most controversial article I have ever written and perhaps the longest. Some will applaud it, others will reject it. But my convictions are firm. Days ago, the Ontario Government announced that Toronto and Peel Region churches must indefinitely reduce their gathering limits to ten persons while schools remain open. Other regions will likely follow. Beer, hardware and department stores reduced their capacities to 50%, while the Church’s previous capacity limit of 30% has been nullified. Other provinces, including British Columbia and Manitoba, have had their churches shuttered for the declared purpose of reducing COVID-19 spread. Christians must not acquiesce to this.
Our church and many others formed a team to campaign through the spring months of this year to reopen Ontario’s churches. Our request was finally granted not based upon the benevolence of provincial officials but due to the threat of a Charter lawsuit. This victory blessed not only Ontario churches but also the efforts of believers in other jurisdictions in Canada seeking to reopen their churches. Many people have come to faith, been baptized, healed, restored to fellowship with God, and loved upon by God’s Church. One of our recent converts posted: “I don’t know where I would be without my church, and without this community of love, support, and guidance. Every week we come together to be reminded that we do not need to live in fear. That we have hope for our future. And that we have a God who loves us more than we could ever imagine.” The full blessings of these days will only be known in eternity. Now things have changed once again, and I am calling the church in Canada to divine obedience over civil obedience. In doing so, I am prepared to answer to my Lord and endure all penalties meted out by civil authorities should I be forced to disobey them. They can take my freedom, my finances, and my life, but I will not bow. Nor will I be shamed, bullied, chided or threatened to back down.
Why Divine Obedience over Civil Obedience is a Christian Duty
1/ Because the clarity of Scripture trumps the ambiguity of the moment.
The Word of God instructs God’s people to meet for the ministry of the Word, sacrament, worship, laying on of hands, greeting one another with a holy kiss, praying over the sick, and fulfilling the “one anothers” of Scripture (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 11:27-34; Heb. 10:25; Jam. 5:14). These are explicit instructions which cannot be replaced with Zoom church anymore than surgery or marital sex can be engaged in without physical presence. In contrast, we live in times of great ambiguity. Rules are being mandated then rolled back. Officials are creating laws then breaking them. Medical protocols are being written and enforced without clear, public evidence of their effectiveness. Our experience on the streets and in hospitals do not match what we are told by the media. When decisions are made, modelling and hypothetical scenarios have greater weight than reality and fear drives decisions more than facts. Several church leaders have declared that the bar for civil disobedience is high but apparently have a very low bar for divine obedience. And yet in all this ambiguity, God’s clear commands stand firm.
2/ Because we must not abandon our flocks.
Incarnational ministry is fundamental to human health and spiritual well-being. Adam’s aloneness is the only negative observation made before sin entered the world (Gen. 2:18). My wife’s grandmother experienced rapid physical decline during the spring lockdown when separated from her children, only to recuperate when reunited with them. Otherwise healthy persons have testified to the mental and spiritual decline they have experienced this year, suicides are up, and terror is pervasive in our society. In our own region, monthly emergency department visits due to drug overdose are on the rise.1 Church leaders are at odds and family members have experienced relational rifts. Church leaders know this more than anybody else. It is therefore selfish and irresponsible for leaders to abandon the known needs of their flock to mitigate against the unknown outcome of a virus.
It is selfish and irresponsible for leaders to abandon the known needs of their flock to mitigate against the unknown outcome of a virus.
Faithful leaders know that electronic means provide only a fraction of the blessing that in-person relationships provide. The church is not a spectator sport, and any leader content with merely providing an “Online Church” experience has a woefully weak ecclesiology.
3/ Because it is wrong to quarantine the healthy.
The Scriptures provide us with examples of quarantining sick people from healthy populations, and we are wise to do the same (Lev. 13:46). But the decision to forcibly quarantine an entire population to stop a virus that the vast majority of healthy people will survive is irresponsible. The collateral damage of increased suicides, failed businesses, and a massive increase in national debt is unconscionable and immoral.
4/ Because it is selfish to bankrupt people.
It is not surprising that so many Canadians are advocates of rolling lockdowns, unconcerned with the economic impact. Lockdown advocates tend to fall into three categories: (1) Lazy, radical socialists who are prepared to exchange their freedom for State handouts, thereby becoming slaves to the State. (2) Those living on guaranteed incomes (which one must not begrudge but which certainly softens the sense of urgency to fully reopen the economy). Or, (3) businesses profiting from the lockdowns. We are however reminded in Holy Scripture that a man who doesn’t work shouldn’t eat (2 Thess. 3:10), and that the Church is to care for the poor (Prov. 28:27). Lockdowns actually create more poor and disallow gainful employment, and faithful churches must not be complicit in such degradation.
5/ Because the Church is being suppressed.
The Church was once a dominant voice on the Canadian landscape; the vestiges of which are seen in the structures of government (the Church being an advocate for both freedom and accountable governance), the Scriptures carved all over our Parliament Buildings, the Christian heritage of our universities, and the preamble to our Charter. Once respected, officials have now determined that church ministry is less needed than beer and hardware stores, and public education (which notably serves the purposes of the State by advocating secular humanism in almost every subject matter). While I am not in favour of closing stores or schools, to close churches while permitting others to remain open is suppressive, discriminatory, and inequitable.
Many are reluctant to speak of persecution in these discussions because they assume persecution requires heinous and malicious intent. This is false. Persecution is any formal suppressive action against the Church that hinders its mission and message. Regarding motive, our Bible teaches us that no one can really know a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person (1 Cor 2:11), and even then the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? (Jer. 17:9). While we may attempt to discern intention in another person, ultimately it remains a mystery and so we are left to observe and assess a person’s fruit/conduct (Matt. 7:15-20). The conduct of a person will be judged even if they are not fully aware of what they are doing.
A telling example of this appears in Mark 15. There, Pilate questioned Jesus’ claims and then questioned the allegations of evil made against Jesus by the Pharisees with this famous question: Why, what evil has he done? (15:14). He appears reluctant to crucify Jesus. And yet, at the insistence of the crowds, and to satisfy the crowd (15:15), Pilate permitted Jesus’ crucifixion. He didn’t want to see Christ die, but he sanctioned it. It is notable too that he succumbed to public pressure in doing so, and as such we mustn’t undervalue the role that public pressure places on officials. Later, in Luke 23:34, as Jesus was being crucified, he declared Father, forgive them (which proves their guilt), for they know not what they do (which proves their ignorance). These Gospel events illustrate that even reluctant or ignorant persons can commit abominable acts, regardless of motive. Any official that oppresses the Church is guilty of the persecution of God’s people. No government is spiritually neutral; they will be useful to the one who masquerades as an angel of light even if they disguise themselves as servants of righteousness (2 Cor. 11:14-15), or they will serve King Jesus.
6/ Because unconditional submission to civil authority is not Christian.
Christian leaders continue to use Romans 13, even appealing to our evangelical and reformed forebears, to advocate for unilateral submission to government lockdowns.2 The argument is built off of 13:1-2 which does instruct the believer to be subject to authority because God has appointed such persons. But the passage actually presupposes that the authority is functioning justly, that he is God’s servant for your good and carries out God’s wrath on the evildoer (13:4). A twin passage in 1 Peter 2:13-14 instructs us to submit the authority and then presents their job description this way: governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. The call to be subject then is null and void if the magistrate does not fulfil these duties, or steps beyond them (as illustrated in the disobedience of the apostles in Acts 5:27-32). Romans 13 can hardly be understood as a call to submit to Nero’s tyranny or wilfully permit oneself to be hurt, anymore than a wife is required to submit to an abusive husband. Their authority is very narrowly limited to matters of public justice, and we flee from those who transgress (Matt 24:15-22).
This raises the question of government intent. Are we being properly governed, or are we witnessing tyranny? While heart intention is hard to know, one thing is very concerning: Ontario’s provincial government whipped the vote to seize emergency powers for an extended period of time, even dismissing a member of their own caucus for holding a dissenting view. How does this build trust or preserve democracy? Even the Canadian Civil Liberties Association called this “deeply concerning”3, while many Christians do not seem concerned at all!
The genius of our political system is allowance for dissent (thus we have an “Official Opposition”) and the need for the three branches of government to hold power in check. Under our current circumstances, our Premier has essentially claimed dictatorial power in the name of public health, while publicly deferring to the paid technocrats (unelected officials) for direction. Is this what Ontarians agreed to submit themselves to at our last election? Are we comfortable with an unaccountable government where dissenting voices are punished? Are we equally comfortable with a technocracy? No. We are being governed by a dysfunctional government system – one Ontarians did not sign up for. As such, I have repeatedly argued that the Premier fully reinstate the Legislature and that the Judiciary fully reopen in order to keep the Executive in check.
Of further note is the question: how much authority does the State possess, to which the believer must submit? In Romans 13, civil authority is given jurisdiction over justice in the public sphere. Our Christian forebears were comfortable with that and urged churches to submit to it. But modern states have extended their authority well beyond matters of justice to include public education, public health, private property use, transportation regulations, right down to requiring dog tags for the family pet. To extend the biblical notion of subjection to any and all areas of life that the government chooses to control is a failure to acknowledge the discontinuities between the ancient and modern world. One could ask: if subjection is that far-reaching, even willfully permitting oneself to be hurt by the State, how can we not chastise the underground church in China for meeting in secret? How can we justify resisting Bill C-6 which will assuredly be used to coerce the Church in Canada from preaching the full Gospel to sexually confused people? Submission to government authority is not an absolute command for followers of Christ.
7/ Because cultural theology demands it.
We need to interpret the events of the day with the newspaper in our hands, or rightly be accused of being tone deaf. Students of culture are aware of the radical disdain for the law of God, the advancement of humanistic and secular ideologies, and the influence they have on lockdowns and other current affairs. Examples of this include the open endorsement of Marxist ideologies by hypocritical officials who have broken their own rules and participated in public protests all-the-while threatening stiff fines. The duplicity is shameful, but more tellingly gives us insight into their cultural and spiritual mindset. Politicians will literally kneel in public in direct violation of their own laws to pay homage to Marxist, anti-family ideologies, but dare label the church “non-essential”.
Politicians will literally kneel in public in direct violation of their own laws to pay homage to Marxist, anti-family ideologies, but dare label the church “non-essential”.
How is it that Christians leaders can call their people to submit to this soul-rattling dismissive spirit towards the Church? How can the same Church leaders who remained silent in the face of mass (at times violent) protests in the spring of this year now oppose our efforts to continue gathering? To their shame, they are evidently more concerned about the optics of public opinion than sacrificial obedience to the Word.
In my estimation we feed the dismissive spirit of our culture by failing to gather; we declare to the world our agreement that we are not really necessary. We clutter up our conversations with pious platitudes like: “It’s the loving thing to do.”, “Church isn’t a building.”, and “We get more viewers Online.” This rhetoric does not draw people to Christianity but confirms their suspicion of our irrelevance, and perhaps many churches are. Just ask around. How many lost people have fallen at the feet of Jesus in repentance because they felt so loved by churches that refused to gather?
8/ Because our officials have failed to justify their behaviour and the onus is on them.
On principle, my default is to honour everyone, and especially authority (1 Pet. 2:13-25). I practice that, preach that, and expect that from person’s under my charge. I also would advocate for the freedom of officials to visit their cottages, walk through the streets, and eat meals in public as they see fit. What I cannot tolerate is the hypocrisy we have witnessed on all levels of government, and we must not honour that behaviour. Our Prime Minister joined public protests contrary to his own mandates. Ontario’s Premier visited his own cottage while warning the citizenry to stay home. Windsor’s mayor threatened zero-tolerance laws in my municipality and hours later broke them by enjoying a meal in a restaurant with seven other friends. He later offered to make a $750 donation to a charity in place of a $750 fine. Does that mean that any fines imposed upon Christians can be donated to their church? Consistency would demand it! Instead, their behaviour leaves the public deeply skeptical about the urgent need for the draconian laws they pass, and I suspect the next election will bear that out. Those who oppose their powers are dismissed from the provincial caucus or asked to resign from their political parties. These are ethically inconsistent acts by people who wish to present themselves as “for the people” but who are increasingly displaying that they are “for themselves” and their own reelection efforts.
Medical officials, paid by taxpayers and therefore functioning with political liability, continue to issue health orders and have mostly failed to provide peer-reviewed medical studies from person’s without political liability to validate them. Under normal circumstances we defer to medical advice, but forcibly ordering businesses and churches to close “because we told you to” is flabbergasting. After many months of waiting, most of us are still limited to data-mining on various medical websites or speaking with the medical experts we personally know for our source material, many of whom are concerned about their own jobs if they speak against the establishment. Medical officers must provide the public with hard data and peer-reviewed studies if they expect to continue suspending Charter freedoms.
9/ Because love requires you to leave your home.
Our Lord Jesus was both kind and blunt in his public engagements with people. He was always loving, but always truthful, even when it hurt (Matt. 9:36; Matt. 22:18; Mk. 10:13-16). Strangely, we have reduced love down to one acceptable action, as expressed in the nauseating motto: “Stay Home and Stay Safe”. To be sure, Christians should concern themselves with the health and welfare of others and historically have done so. To wilfully expose a person to a disease that would inevitably kill them is criminally negligent, just as drunk driving would be. But our options are not so black and white, and we simply cannot stay home indefinitely. We now know that only a fraction of 1% will succumb to the virus, while many more die daily for various reasons, including suicide.4 Getting on with life is not akin to drunk driving, it is more like our daily commute within which we potentially could injure another person but probably will not. While every soul is precious, as in war we cannot afford to draw back from all risk or we will lose the very thing we fight for: life and liberty.
While every soul is precious, as in war we cannot afford to draw back from all risk or we will lose the very thing we fight for: life and liberty.
If by staying home we lose life and liberty, what’s the point? In addition to basic protocols, we must consider: (1) the need to continue ministering to the healthy, (2) how to meet the emotional, spiritual and economic needs of vulnerable people, (3) how to remove encumbrances to people seeking to maintain their livelihoods, (4) lessons from history that require us to be wary of drift toward tyranny, (5) the reality of spiritual warfare against the people of God, and (6) the sovereign right of the Church over its own worship. These are loving things to advocate for, and may God give us the grace to love others in these ways.
I do not deny that there is a virus working its way through the population as evidenced by the increase in cases counts. I think it is wise to exercise some basic protective measures to minimize the spread. At the same time, not only has the virus turned out to be far less deadly than previously announced, but experientially we all know that it has had little direct effect on the majority of healthy people. But suppose the circumstances were otherwise and we were experiencing mass casualties? If that were so, I would be prepared to promote greater health measures, assuming they were equitable (i.e. only hospitals, police and EMS remain open) and are proven necessary (i.e. when weighed by a panel of professionals without political liability, or by way of a free vote in the Legislature). But I would not alter my stance on the need for the gathered church to meet regularly, or for citizens to be afforded their basic freedoms. Indefinite closures can never be accepted by any Christian or Canadian patriot, no matter the risk. Life is filled with risks, and all of us will eventually die. Fortunately we know from Scripture that the world will not end from COVID-19, and when we do die, we have resurrection hope (a doctrine that appears ineffectual in reducing fear in many Christians these days).
In light of these considerations, I call the church to divine obedience over civil obedience. And I call upon all responsible officials to call together a collection of pastors, economists, historians, sociologists, and physicians, to consult the public, tell the truth, allow for dissenting opinions and free votes, and provide a path forward for all Canadians. In the meantime, churches will remain open for God’s people to gather in worship and fully engage in the tasks and responsibilities irrevocably assigned to them by God.5
1 https://www.wechu.org/reports/opioid-overdose-statistics (accessed Nov 12, 2020).
2 It is noteworthy that John Calvin wrote, “For earthly princes lay aside their power when they rise up against God, and are unworthy to be reckoned among the number of mankind. We ought, rather, to spit upon their heads than to obey them.” John Calvin, Commentary on Daniel Lecture XXX, Daniel 6:32, as quoted in The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrates by Matthew J. Trewhella
3 https://www.thestar.com/politics/provincial/2020/07/07/premier-doug-ford-to-extend-emergency-covid-19-powers-into-next-year.html (accessed Nov 11, 2020).
4 https://nationalpost.com/health/covid-19-canada-unemployment-depression-suicide (accessed Nov 25, 2020).
5 See the Niagara 2020 Declaration for further articulation of the Church’s relationship to the State. https://www.niagaradeclaration.ca/