SHOULD THE CANADIAN GOVERNMENT SHUT DOWN CHURCHES
Should the Canadian government be allowed to shut down churches? It is 2021 and this is a very relevant question for those of us living through the Covid situation.The 2020/2021 years have seen a constantly changing, yo-yo reaction, of church restrictions, restriction liftings, church closures, church being restricted to 50 attendees, lifting of restrictions and then again full closures. Warnings of failure to strictly adhere to social distancing rules could result in thousands of dollars in fines. If this had occurred over a few week period, to flatten the curve like we were originally told, most churches would have accepted the inconvenience patiently. Now that we are in our second year of changing restrictions and closures, churches are starting to ask the question, “Should the Canadian government be allowed to shut down churches?”
At the forefront of this debate is the GraceLife in Edmonton, Canada. The most publicized example of a Canadian church standing up to government restrictions during this Covid era is the GraceLife Church, led by Pastor James Coates. Pastor Coates turned himself in to authorities after violating the official public health orders regarding places of worship. Alberta's provincial restrictions limit in-person attendance to 15 per cent of fire code capacity. He was incarcerated for 35 days in Edmonton’s maximum security Remand Centre and then released. He is awaiting a trial in May. Because the Church has continued to gather outside of the restricted requirements, the RCMP have seized control of the Church property. This was followed by a demonstration of approximately 400 people supporting the Church's stand.
GraceLifeChurch has printed a lengthy statement explaining their position and explaining their careful efforts to protect members and attendees during this time. I will quote a small portion but invite you to visit their website and read their full statement at https://gracelife.ca/. Here is two excepts of some of what their public statement says;
“Dear fellow Albertans,
It goes without saying this has been an incredibly difficult 11 months. The effects and ramifications of COVID-19 on our precious province are not insignificant. We sympathize with everyone who has suffered loss in this time, whether it be the loss of a loved one, or loss stemming from government lockdowns (such as economic loss or suffering as a result of being denied necessary health care).
Given the attention our church has received in recent days, we want to address the broader public on our reasons for gathering as a local church. What follows is not a theological defence. We have already addressed that sufficiently here, here, here and here (and it is primarily and predominantly obedience to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ that has shaped our stance). ...
When COVID-19 first appeared, we shifted to livestream and abided by most of the new government guidelines for our gatherings. But when the first declared public health emergency ended, we opened our doors and returned to nearly normal gatherings on Sunday June 21st, 2020. We did so recognizing COVID-19 was much less severe than the government had initially projected. This sentiment was reflected in the assessment of the Premier of Alberta, who deliberately referred to COVID-19 as “influenza” multiple times in a speech announcing the end of the first declared public health emergency.
In early July, it was brought to our attention that two separate individuals had attended our gatherings on two consecutive Sundays and subsequently tested positive for the virus (both cases being unrelated to each other). At that time, we did our own internal contact tracing (prior to AHS notifying us of the exposure), many of our congregants were tested, and it was determined that no transmission of the virus had taken place. Out of an abundance of caution, we shifted exclusively to livestream and shutdown all other ministries for two weeks (14 days). We did this to mitigate any further spread of COVID-19. When it was evident that no further spread had taken place, we resumed our nearly normal gatherings. Since then, we have gathered as a church each Sunday without incident (28 Sundays to date).”
There are many other examples of Canadian churches pushing back against the government on this issue. Recently a policeman came to another Albertan Church, a street church that was suspected to be in noncompliance. The police officer did not have a warrant and was ordered to leave by the pastor. The officer complied.
Seventy-nine Churches across Canada signed up to participate in the Liberty Coalition initiative to hold services on Good Friday and Easter Sunday. This constituted a Canada-wide stand for taking back religious freedom.
Is this a right for us, Christians to practice our faith in this way, even when in opposition to government orders? The Canadian Charter of Rights And Freedoms was drafted to protect the rights of every Canadian citizen. Many feel that these rights have become more and more important and that protection has become more and more needed and that the Canadian Government has overreached its authority and bypassed these very rights of all Canadians during the Covid 19 pandemic. I recognize that we are not the only community affected and imagine that other communities are taking a stand for their Charter rights.
The Charter Of Rights and Freedoms states:
“Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:
“freedom of conscience and religion”
“freedom of peaceful assembly”
“freedom of association”
Practicing our faith involves many things, including public and corporate worship. This is a cherished freedom. Christian followers gather in church assemblies to worship together, hear God's Word spoken and to fellowship with each other. We have been doing this for two thousand years. Churches have stayed open through world crisis of every kind. They have stayed open during natural disasters, through economic crashes, through persecution, and even through times of war. Yet a virus is thought to trumps all of these other crises and we are expected to accept restrictions on the practicing and living out of our faith.
Throughout this present crisis, churches, the Christian community as a whole, has shown great patience towards the Canadian government. Churches have shown respect and good-will towards their government. However, there comes a point at which the government's expectations are not realistic, nor reasonable, and something needs to be said.
If Covid restrictions had been imposed on Christian believers, taking away from us our religious freedoms and freedom of assembly, for a brief period of time, such as three weeks, most Christian leaders would accept that with little protest. However, there comes a point where it is no longer acceptable to prohibit people from practicing their faith. The Covid emergency has dragged on into its second year. Just how long will the restrictions continue? We don't know because we have not been told. However, Adrian Dix, B.C.'s health Minister said at a press briefing in August 2020, “This pandemic… that we are all so very tired of will be going on, we would expect well into 2021, into 2022,”.
There needs to be a recognition on the part of government that most churches can't afford to operate if they follow restrictions to turn away all but 50 of their members, or experience total shutdown for extended periods of time. There needs to be a recognition that restrictions as severe as these create great economic damage to churches and that this damage can only be absorbed if it is inflicted for only a limited period of time.
Does this mean that all churches should be open and at capacity during this time of Covid concern? I am not saying a definite “yes” but, rather, that Church leaders should be the ones who decide. During this time, the church that I would normally attend decided to cooperate fully with government orders. If that is what the pastor senses is God's direction for our specific church, then fine. The point is that the Church leadership should make that decision. Conversely, Churches that feel that God wants them to fully open should be allowed to follow conscience and do so.
In fact, it is not the place for a secular government official to regulate, control, alter, modify, or deny any ceremony or practice of Christian faith. This is overreach. This is not their arena of operation. God has appointed three institutions in society: the family, the Church and the State. Each has its own sphere of authority. As long as these institutions are respected by each other, they can thrive. However, the problem that we see over and over again is that government, especially liberal and other left-wing secular governments, don't respect the other two institutions and meddle in their affairs. They undermine the institution of family in many ways, most notably by not accepting, and contradicting, God's definition of family, that is, one man and one woman united through holy matrimony for life and any children that they may have. They instead undermine and undo God's definition and promote alternative models of family. They also undermine family by overruling parental rights in favour of school authorities and special interests.
The other institution that the government has overstepped its authority regarding, by intruding and trying to regulate, is the Church. It is not the responsibility of government to tell the Church how it must organize itself, conduct its services, say which sacred practices we may or may not do, or tell the Church how many people it may or may not serve. Restricting church attendance to fifty people, or shutting it down outright, not only means having to turn attendees away, but also forbids churches that are at that limit, from growth. Forbidding church growth means that the Church can't fulfill its mission.
The point is that, in many ways, secular government needs to back out of the institution of family and back out of the institution of the church. It is overreaching its authority, suspending The Charter of Rights and Freedoms and violating Christian followers, as well as other communities also affected. This violation is deeply felt. Pastors and elders operate with God-given authority in ecclesiastical matters and must be left alone by civic leaders in this regard. It is a matter of jurisdiction. Secular government is blind to understanding or appreciating our faith for its true worth. Consequently, without knowledge of the spiritual dimension, it is not able to evaluate what controls would be for our greater good or for our greater harm. On top of this, it is not the jurisdiction of civil government to regulate the Church. It has not been equipped or commissioned by God for ecclesiastical matters. It is not the prerogative for civil government to alter, modify or forbid spiritual worship or Christian practice. It needs to back out of this sphere where it doesn't belong.
Police forces are much needed parts of any society. They are there to go after real crime such as gang violence, drug trafficking and human trafficking. When they are taken away from this role and turned on the public, turned on good citizens, turned on soft targets like business owners, churches and pastors then we have an injustice.
We stand for the autonomy of the local church and for it's God-given right to operate and to fulfill its mission to the world and its commission from God.We stand for the right of the Christian Church to follow Christ without external hampering or interference from any hierarchy of man, including secular government. We maintain that the Church does not need permission from the state to follow or obey God. In fact, the authority of Jesus Christ is final and above all other authority. We read of Christ's authority, which God established: “Which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places, Far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come: And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, Which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all.” (Ephesians 1:20-23) We also read, “And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.” (Matthew 28:18)
It is time for secular government to drop restrictions on churches gathering together. The word “Church” in the original Greek language is “ekklesia” which means an assembly of called out ones. Assembling goes down to the core of who we are. For two thousand years we have been assembling together even through times of natural disaster, economic crashes, world calamities of every type and even war. Now we are expected by our government to accept crippling restrictions on our ability to meet, all over a virus?
Throughout the two thousand years that we have been practicing our faith, the Christian Church has suffered much persecution and believers have endured martyrdom. This often came at the hands of governments that tried to restrict or ban the practicing of our faith. Believers in every age have stood for their right to practice their faith.
Churches have shown a great deal of patience during this difficult time. No one would have objected to voluntarily complying with a few weeks of shutdown and lockdown. Government said that they needed a little time to flatten the curve of this virus. However, as this situation has dragged on into, not weeks, but months and crossed over between two years, and the covid 19 debate has become greatly intertwined in politics, our voluntary compliance needs to be re-evaluated. That is, re-evaluated by us, not by government. There is great debate over how serious this virus really is, or really isn't. There is debate on how should society in general respond to a virus situation like this. Politics have gotten involved and many government members have come coming down pretty hard on the side of “more serious,” “more shutdown,” and “more restrictions.” In the midst of “more serious,” “more restrictions” Our constitutional and inalienable rights are being bypassed.
For two thousand years we have stayed open during natural disasters, through economic crashes, through persecution, and through times of war. We have a Chartered right to our freedom of religion and our freedom of peaceful assembly. We have an inalienable human right to practice our faith. We have watched secular civil government cross way over the red line that separates their authority from ours. We have been given a mission and a commission to fulfill. We stand for the autonomy of the local church and for it's God-given right to operate. We have shown much patience but now our civic leaders have all of society stuck in a rut as they wrangle over the science and the politics of Covid 19. The patience is spent. The assembly of called out ones must be given the freedom to assemble again without interference.
King James Version of the Holy Bible