The Rationale of the Christian Covid Rebels
in which we seek to understand why James Coates took his stand against the Alberta government
Startling events in Canada brought the long dormant question of the relationship of church and state to the forefront of Christian minds. On Feb 16, 2021, in Edmonton, Alberta, pastor James Coates turned himself in to the police because of repeated violations of orders from the Public Health Officer of the province. Pastor Coates refused comply with an undertaking to obey a court order until his trial date, so he remained in custody for 35 days. Three weeks after his release from custody, on April 7, the police fenced his church property and posted security guards so no one could access the building.
Some Christians applauded Pastor Coates, some other pastors in Alberta and Ontario. Despite this, most Canadian pastors disagree with Pastor Coates’ approach to the government orders. Many of these sympathize with his plight and that of his church, but can’t agree with the direction he took.
Through the many ages of Christian history, the church in various locations and at various times experienced some level of state persecution. Christians are sensitive about state interference with their activities. Especially in North America, where the United States of America enshrined religious liberty in its constitution and in Canada, where its Charter of Rights and Freedoms declares religious freedom to be a fundamental freedom of Canadian society, Christians question any government interference, even at the mildest level. In some senses, Bible-believing Christians expect trouble from the government. When the government shows up at the door, inquiring about church operations, believers wonder if this is the “next one” in the long series of historical repressions.
Nevertheless, Christians in North America traditionally have also held the government and law in high esteem. We applaud police officers and other first responders. We decry rising lawlessness in our society and the fecklessness of our justice system, which seems to coddle criminals and harass the innocent. We try to be good citizens. We try to contribute to the positive good of our community. So, though we expect the state to oppress, we still teach ourselves to do good and support the symbols of authority in our community.
The case in Edmonton shocks us, and when we hear, “Pastor arrested, in jail,” we react with horror and suspicion. This really is the “next one,” we think. “The time of trouble has come.” Well, has it really come? Is this the next wave of persecution, or is it something else? Why are most Canadian pastors refusing to follow the lead of Pastor Coates? Why is Pastor Coates taking the steps he is taking? What lies behind the thinking of Pastor Coates and others like him? This chapter will attempt to explain their thinking honestly. I acknowledge at the outset that this chapter will disagree with their rationale, but I want you to see it clearly so you can make your own judgement.
To get a good sense of where the “Covid rebels” are coming from, we will quote from the writings of these men: James Coates; Tim Stephens of Fairview Baptist Church in Calgary, Alberta; Aaron Rock of Harvest Bible Church in Windsor, Ontario; and Will Shuurman of Trinity Bible Chapel in Waterloo, Ontario. They are not all in the same denomination, but they are members of a group of pastors taking the position that the government overreached its authority in the Covid crisis and that the Church is under no obligation to obey the health orders. Instead, they say, the church is under obligation to meet for worship, no matter what the state may say. As we survey the documents posted under their names, we find that they argue their position in much the same way, sometimes referencing or quoting one another. (As an editorial note, I will refer to this group in general as the “Covid rebels” in what follows.)
These men hold that churches need not abide by government restrictions of churches. They need not refrain from holding services, they need not follow policies of social distancing or mask wearing, they need not submit to the Public Health Officer in any way. To justify their stand, they appeal to arguments from the Bible and from reason. We will survey the Biblical argument first. It rests first on an application of the command for Christians to assemble in church services and secondly on a limitation of the understanding of Romans 13, the passage calling for submission to governing authorities.
Responding to online comments, Will Shuurman writes, “True, the church is not a location. But the church is a gathering. It is an assembly. No assembly = no church.”1 [Emphasis his.] Most people agree that the point of a church is assembly. Even secular leaders agree. Public officials single out religious gatherings for the Covid restrictions because they know that absent the restrictions, the people of the church will gather. Gathering is the point, and given the communicable nature of the coronavirus, government officials moved to limit those gatherings (or prohibit them in some cases).
Pastor Shuurman, in asserting, “No assembly = no church” doesn’t mean to say that the church only exists when its members meet, but he does argue that a government ban on assembly is a ban on the church itself. “So in one sense, an assembly ban is a church ban. It’s a ban against ekklesia.”2
In support of the notion that “for a church to exist it must assemble,” Shuurman adds numerous unrelated passages showing the expectation of assembly. For example, the “one another” commands (“love one another, serve one another, greet one another”) are impossible of fulfillment without assembly. (This seems to load these commands with more weight than they can bear – surely two believers can fulfill some aspects of these commands without assembling the whole church.) Further, he argues, the commands to observe the communion service, to practice church discipline, to conduct orderly services, and to make disciples all demand the gathering of the church in assembly. While it is true that we cannot fulfill some of these commands apart from assembly, it seems a bit much to assume that these commands become commands to assemble. Shurrman seems to want to scrape every bit of data out of the Scriptures that he can find to support his position. For example, discipleship is often more of a one on one process than a group process. Does the whole church have to gather for discipleship to occur?3
Nevertheless, the church gathering is important and it is commanded, no doubt, as Hebrews 10.25 teaches. Shuurman points this out and notes the companion commands to “to stir one another in love and good works as well to encourage one another,” also found in the passage. Considering these commands, he maintains, “We cannot fully obey these commands according to these verses without gathering. Gathering then is required.”4 [Bolded text mine.] For Shuurman, perhaps, the church that cannot “fully obey” is no longer a church. He argued in his earlier post “When you watch an online service, you haven’t had church at home. You haven’t done ekklēsia. You haven’t ‘met together with the saints,’ (Hebrews 10:25).”5 In making that point, he makes these analogies:
“Watching an online worship service and concluding that you’ve attended a church gathering is like:
“Watching the Raptors win the 2019 NBA Championship on TV and concluding that you were at the Oracle Arena when it happened.
“Or watching a Sandals Resort infomercial and concluding that you’ve vacationed in Jamaica.
“Or watching the 1969 Lunar Landing and concluding that you’ve walked on the moon.”6
These analogies have a show of wisdom, but consider this. Earlier this year (2021) I participated in a board meeting where all members met entirely on line. We discussed issues, conducted business, elected officers, and so on. Tell me, was I in the meeting or not?
No one would say that an on-line meeting is ideal, that it is the best way to meet, or that it is preferable to face-to-face in person meetings. Nevertheless, when our society finds itself confronting a threat like the global coronavirus pandemic, can we seriously argue that the government is persecuting the church or prohibiting its function by restricting or even suspending services for the time being?
I plan to do more work in a separate chapter on Hebrews 10, but we need to think about how woodenly we press the application of its precepts. Do we want to say that the passage means every Christian must meet with his local church every Sunday, or else be in sin? What about the mother who stays home with a sick child, is she in sin? In an article I wrote in 2020, I mentioned the churches in a little community in the hills of Tennessee. During the Civil War, they suspended services because, “there was too many Rebs in these parts.” Would someone like to argue that those Christians sinned against Hebrews 10 because of their prudence?
When we look back in history to regimes that aggressively tried to eliminate the church altogether, let alone prohibit their meeting, are we seriously trying to compare a temporary health emergency to anti-Christian dictatorial regimes? The communists in the Soviet Union severely attacked the churches that persisted outside the “state approved and managed” legal churches. Christians today in communist China face severe reprisals. It seems extremely presumptuous to equate ourselves with them, who endured far more for absolutely unjustifiable opposition.
To sum up, we agree that the church must meet. That is the expectation of the Scriptures. But the command to meet is not absolute, and the ways in which the church manages to fulfill the command is manifestly varied. Thank the Lord for modern technology that allows a means of assembly that can overcome our barriers to some degree. Can you imagine surviving this last year as a church without technology?
The arguments of the “Covid rebels” against submission to government, however, are not simply based on a woodenly precise obedience to the commands of assembly. The second plank in the platform is a severe reinterpretation of Romans 13 and the commands to obey those who God placed in authority over us.
Reading several articles by the activist group of pastors, I find the re-interpretation of Romans 13 best articulated in a series of posts by Tim Stephens, pastor of Fairview Baptist Church in Calgary.7 He begins by proclaiming the lordship of Christ over the church (all Bible-believing Christians agree with this). He describes the Scriptural pattern for church life as set down by the Lord Jesus Christ:
“We can all see from Scripture the pattern set down for congregational worship, singing, fellowship, preaching, public prayers, practicing hospitality, a host of ‘one-anothers,’ celebration of the Lord’s Supper and baptism, and living as a family of faith—brothers and sisters under the lordship of Christ.”8
In that description, we see a summary of the activities argued above as “commanding” always in person worship meetings as the “only” way we can fulfill this direction by the Lord. Covid-19 and government restrictions interrupted this pattern, pastor Stephens points out, and now we are confronted with a choice – either conform to government restrictions or not. However, Stephens terms the negative (not conforming to government restrictions) as “conscience.” To him, those who follow conscience means they “live their lives in a mostly normal manner,” that is, they mostly live without following government restrictions.9 He says that when the choice confronts the church, those who lean towards conformity follow Romans 13, those who lean towards conscience follow Romans 14. So, which should we follow? For that we need to understand clearly the meaning of Romans 13.
Romans 13 may not seem that hard to understand. The first two verses are very plain:
Rm 13.1-2 ¶ Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.
The statement seems open and shut, we must obey government authority. We do have some Biblical exceptions, such as when the apostles refused to stop preaching in Christ’s name. In the main, however, governmental authority seems clear. We must obey.
Ah, not so fast, says pastor Stephens, consider the context. Romans 12 closes with a series of commands, including, in verses 19-21, commands to the individual to not seek vengeance, rather overcome evil by good. Next comes the commands of 13.1-2, and they are followed by 13.3-4:
Rm 13.3-4 For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; 4 for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.
You see, God appoints governments for avenging evil, for matters of justice and injustice. “So, if we bring Romans 12 and 13 together we get a clearer picture. Don’t take revenge against evildoers, for God has appointed the state to be an instrument of his wrath against them.”10
But, you see, this appointment is really a limitation. It isn’t that government authority extends over every area of life, but only over areas having to do with evildoers and justice and injustice. Governments have no authority, pastor Stephens says, over “the common good.” He goes on to say:
“There is nothing in Romans 13 that teaches that the government is responsible for the common good. There is nothing in Romans 13 that teaches that the government is responsible for keeping people safe from a virus such that they even command what takes place in the church and in the home.”11
“Romans 13 defines the authority of the state to uphold justice and mete out God’s wrath according to God’s standards. It does not give power to the state to define justice or what is good and evil. It does not give authority to the state to outlaw gathering freely in worship, and then bring the punishment of the sword upon those who do.”12
[In the original edition of this article, I discussed Tim Stephens’ position on Romans 14, the next chapter. I find I misunderstood his point and grievously misquoted him. You can see the correction at the end of the article.]
Now there is much more to say about Romans 13, but this sums up the arguments this group makes against government authority in the matter. In their minds, government has no authority to regulate public health, so Christians are free to disobey. Pastor Aaron Rock of Harvest Bible Church in Windsor, Ontario bluntly says:
“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.”13 [Emphasis mine.]
It is hard to imagine that the normal interpretation of language would lead someone to so narrowly conclude that governmental authority in the Bible is strictly limited to issues of crime and punishment. One suspects that this interpretation, a novel one as far as I can tell, came about as a consequence of the Covid crisis, not from a deeply held theological belief.
However, the argument doesn’t end there. We have the statement of GraceLife Church, posted on their website on Feb 7, 2021, and revised on Feb 16, 2021. Presumably the author is James Coates, but the author is unidentified. In any case, the final argument against conformity to government Covid restrictions comes down to a simple denial of the crisis at all.
The article is posted here. The following remarks summarize the points the article makes.
First, the article says that the Covid crisis isn’t really a pandemic because the definition of pandemic changed after H1N1. “Ten years ago, COVID-19 would not have qualified as a pandemic.” Further, the testing is faulty, “the number of Albertans who have actually contracted the virus is likely significantly less” than reported. Covid-related deaths are insignificant statistically, and ignore other deaths brought on by the lockdowns. The implication of this is, simply, “Crisis, what crisis?” We don’t need to follow government restrictions because there is no real crisis.
Secondly, the negative effects of the lockdown far surpass the effects of Covid-19 and the lockdowns aren’t effective in stopping Covid. There may well be some truth to this, but even if true, how is this relevant for GraceLife church to simply ignore government restrictions? The point is a value judgement, and reasonable people can disagree on this point (unless empirical data exists). The proponents of disobedience are simply saying, “My opinion is better than the government’s opinion.” (Keeping in mind that government officials have far more data available to them than average citizens.)
Third, the lockdowns have a nefarious purpose, “to fundamentally alter society and strip us all of our civil liberties.” The article goes on, “By the time the so-called ‘pandemic’ is over, if it is ever permitted to be over, Albertans will be utterly reliant on government, instead of free, prosperous, and independent.” Conceivably, governments could be motivated by the lust for totalitarian power. However, this ignores that governments of all political persuasions, left, right, and center, have all imposed at least some restrictions on their jurisdictions. And please note, the Conservative government of Alberta hardly has a totalitarian ideology! (One might suspect more dastardly intentions of the socialist government in British Columbia, but I truly doubt it.) This is conspiracy thinking, not sober analysis of the current situation.
Fourth, the article claims that love for the neighbour demands resistance to the lockdowns — because our activism will bring the lockdowns to an end. (Well, at least it makes the defiance noble!)
And finally, the article claims the public is living in fear to media hype — the media convinced the people “that yielding up their civil liberties to the government is in their best interests.” This is more conspiracy thinking. Although it is true that the media in general seems far more interested in big government and leftist ideology, these assertions are just fear-mongering. They seem to be trying to “out-media” the media.
In my summary of this argument, I’ve pulled threads from the various paragraphs. The statement jumps from topic to topic without much coherent thought. Check the link above to see what I mean.
I’ve tried to summarize the positions of the “Covid rebels” here in Canada. They aren’t an organized group, they aren’t even from the same denominations. However, their arguments seem to overlap with all of them holding, more or less, to some form of the views summarized in this article.
To close this chapter, I would like to strongly disagree with the positions I’ve summarized above. The “Covid rebels” are forcing Hebrews 10 to bear an absolute and dogmatic position that demands more from Christians than the original author intended. The recipients of Hebrews wrestled with the temptation of abandoning their faith, their apostolic teacher called them to maintain their commitments. There are scenarios when the whole church cannot gather, and likely it is a rare Sunday when a whole local church does gather in its entirety. No one should burden the conscience of Christians with something beyond the meaning of the text.
The “Covid rebels” are taking Romans 13 in a novel direction. They are narrowly limiting its application to matters of crime and punishment alone. We can’t accept that interpretation. The Bible itself demonstrates that this interpretation is far too narrow. The obligation to submit to governing authorities is a very high bar in Scripture. There are Biblical exceptions, but we must be sure that our exceptions are based squarely on Biblical precedent, not our personal preferences. As noted earlier, it is unlikely that this narrow interpretation of Romans 13 drives that activities of the “Covid rebels.” Rather, their dissatisfaction with Covid restrictions led them to a novel Bible interpretation.
Finally, with respect to James Coates’ dismissals of the Covid crisis itself, what can we say? There is a real crisis. Many fell sick and many died from it. Despite that, perhaps the crisis is overblown. Perhaps the government’s solutions are ineffective or nonsensical. Nevertheless, to base your flagrant disobedience to regulations on the claim “I’ve done the research, and I have concluded,” as Coates does, is shockingly arrogant to say the least. One may hold an opposition opinion, but no one gave special insight to James Coates and the other elders of his congregation so that they are free to act on their own initiative, apart from the God-appointed authorities of the land.
I plan to address the Biblical arguments of Hebrews 10 and Romans 13 in more detail in future chapters. I would like to also address some of the history of church relationships with government. Christians and churches need to think about these issues, because there are storm clouds of persecution on the horizon. We won’t face it over Covid, but over the rising “woke” mob, Critical Race Theory, and the homosexual agenda. These threats need some discussion as well.
In my original post, I misquoted Tim Stephens. My misquote caused me to misunderstand and misrepresent his argument. Here is the offending section:
According to Stephens, Christians may defy government health orders as a matter of conscience. If their conscience allows them to meet in church services, their conscience is the only authority they need follow, government has no authority in this matter at all.
“One might seek to argue that all matters relating to health restrictions all fall under Romans 14. That is, it is a matter of conscience and conviction before the Lord. So whether one chooses to gather or stay home, to submit to restrictions in all areas or defy in others, it is all a matter of personal conviction not to be judged by any other.”14
What I missed was the next sentence in the quote: “This is not my argument.” My missing that sentence misconstrues Tim’s argument at this point and I unreservedly apologize. I thank Ben Edwards for pointing out my error.
Source: Our Stance on COVID-19: November 25, 2020 | Article: A Call to Divine Obedience over Civil Obedience