Early Monday morning, my city was put into a Covid-19 lockdown. Officially, the regulation is called: “Ontario Regulation 654/20: RULES FOR AREAS IN STAGE 1.” Under these directives, churches and other places of worship are limited to indoor worship gatherings of ten people. That includes any pastoral staff. That is not many people.
Some of my pastor friends in the city are considering disobeying that order, believing that the Provincial Government has violated their rights to worship as articulated in Canada’s Constitution (the section entitled, Charter of Rights and Freedoms). Online petitions have started, rallies are planned and letters to editors and politicians and anyone who will listen are flowing. (A thorough, representative article, albeit by a pastor outside of the lockdown area, was written here by Aaron Rock.)
Sometimes the rhetoric associated with this viewpoint seems to be saying that anyone taking a different approach is spineless and lacking moral courage. That is the bit I would like to consider first.
The Nature of Truth
One of my great concerns over the last year has centred on the nature of truth. I believe the Word of God is true. As Jesus noted in His prayer, “…your word is truth” (John 17:17). When I get up in the morning, I am utterly convinced that everything in my Bible is true. It will not change tomorrow since it is God’s Word. My grasp of what is true about a pandemic or lack of one is in another category altogether.
My concern lies in what motivates decisions. As strong as my opinions are about the nature of Covid-19 and the response of governments and epidemiologists across the world, I cannot hold to my opinions about those things with the same certainty. I am not omniscient. I do not see into the hearts of humans and what motivates them. I am not privy to some secret chambers of worldwide decision-making. But, I still know my Bible is true.
So, I am all for pastors that are continuing to do what I hope they were doing long before this unprecedented time: preaching the Word. I mean by this not just proclaiming it from their pulpit, but modelling their obedience to it in every sphere of life. More than this, modelling their certainty in it, more than their certainty in whether or not a virus is real and its handling being done well.
I want to be totally clear about my concern for any person on any side of the issue effectually placing their opinions of the virus into the same category of Truth as God’s revealed Word. May that never be.
We simply must leave space to disagree with each other on this matter.
Now, I think there are ways to agree about all of this talk about the nature of Truth and still come to different conclusions on how to approach something like a lockdown. In fact, that might be the heart of my concern. If you think everyone must agree with your assessment of the pandemic, its handling, and how churches should respond to such, then I think you are not carefully thinking through both the principles and application of a host of Scriptures, not the least of which is Romans 12-14. If you demand that other churches follow your church in how to handle these matters, I also have deep ecclesiological concerns. I am a Baptist, after all.
So, I take issue with one side charging the other with cowardice, as I do the “cowards” charging the others with being “too political.” “So then each of us will give an account of himself to God” (Romans 14:12). We simply must leave space to disagree with each other on this matter. Don’t forget we have an experienced and wicked enemy trying to deceive us into division, disunity and every violation of love (1 Corinthians 13).
Why Our Elders Are not (yet) Leading Our Church to Protest Or Civilly Disobey
That being said, the nature of the “lockdowns are a violation of our rights” side is a more vocal one. That side organizes rallies, posts a lot on social media, and the like. And it can lead the average pastor to feel like he is doing something wrong if he is not doing the same. So, my second purpose in writing is to explain, in some measure, why our elders are not (yet) leading our church to protest or civilly disobey.
First off, we think Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:11-25 are quite applicable to today. We are eager to honour our governing authorities. We think we should do that in the way we speak about them and the way we speak to them. We think this is a way of delighting in and worshipping God. Part of this means we are respectfully pursuing every legal avenue of appeal, as slow as that may be.
Secondly, we have sought to love our neighbours and befriend the folks we are dealing with at each level of government. Early on in our dealings with one department, we found out our “random” contact there was a fellow Christian. That was helpful. Not because we thought we could manipulate a deal from an insider! Rather, it helped to shape both the content and tone of our communication. We could very well be speaking to a fellow Christian. The last thing we wanted to do was put their testimony at work in jeopardy because we fellow Christians were acting unbecomingly.
Thirdly, we have been very active on social media, the mainstream media and other platforms in order to ask respectful questions and get our desire to gather together into the public eye. What some have considered to be an organized attack on the church, we think is often just neglect. There are not as many Christians in Ontario as there used to be and oftentimes it seems groups like ours just get overlooked. We like to try and help our leaders remember us and respond to our questions.
Fourthly, we have kept every single protocol. I do not think God is pleased by lip-service. It didn’t work out too well for King Saul. I used to teach my kids that “to obey means, do it all, do it now and do it with a happy heart.” That seems to sum up the Biblical teaching on the matter. If God has told us to obey our governing authorities, then we are going to do it all, do it now and, perhaps most difficult of all, do it with a happy heart. This has the added advantage of making it clear when and if we decide to not obey a government directive.
So our approach so far has been one of trying to win favour with our governing authorities in order to demonstrate we can meet in a safe manner. This is one approach and one the elders of this local church think is both wise and prudent at this time.
Our Last Public Gathering (Possibly) for Months
Last Sunday we gathered for what we thought might be our last public gathering for months. I wept as I pronounced the benediction outside after we sang through a snowstorm. I love these people. I want to be with them. Our elders are doing all they can to find a solution. But, we think it is wise to play the long game. We are seeking to build honest, quick, and helpful communication with our civic leaders and praying that God uses our interactions to save those who do not know Him yet and/or grant us favourable answers to our appeal.
We are not convinced that a temporary pandemic lockdown measure (whether or not we even agree if there is a pandemic!) is on par with something like race-based housing laws. These were laws that many tried to overturn in the courts without success long before peaceful civil disobedience was enacted. There may very well come a time to disobey, after all, passages like Acts 5:29 are in our Bibles, too. But, we do not think that time is here yet.
We think what is most needed in these days of lockdowns and conspiracies and competing datasets is a whole bunch of Canadian pulpits with faithful men who continue to open the Word of God with more conviction about its truthfulness than anything else. Men who preach Jesus and Him crucified and live lives that adorn well the Gospel of Jesus. Whether we civilly disobey or keep to the protocols, there is no reason to not do that.
For what it is worth, I know a couple of pastors in the city who are meeting with 8-10 groups of 10 members every Sunday to pray with them, preach a little sermon to them and fellowship with them. I know others who are pivoting back to online services. And I know some who are coming up with even more creative solutions based on their unique situation. There are lots of options. A lot of them look a lot different than a single group of more than ten people meeting in one building for an hour on a Sunday morning.
If you are a pastor in the middle of a lockdown, don’t lose heart. And don’t feel that you are wrong or a coward if you see things differently than your civilly disobeying pastor friend down the street. If there was ever a time for us to extend grace and patience to one another and other churches, it is now. The other option just scores points for the enemy.