During the COVID-19 pandemic, regional governments across Canada have mandated restrictions that limit our freedoms. In particular, churches have had to worship in increasingly reduced numbers. Alberta, for example, can meet with only 15% of its capacity while Ontario can only meet with a maximum of ten people to worship. These tightening restrictions are relatively new in both Provinces, but the point remains the same: governments have placed limits on how Christians can worship in Canada.
Early into the pandemic, few of us knew enough to make informed decisions. Governments placed their populace on lockdown orders. For the most part, Canadians understood why. During the Summer, Fall, and Winter of 2020 things changed. We began rightly to query the decisions of our leaders. Even so, Churches continued to work closely with their public health authorities to find out the newest regulations. From every account I have heard, these relationships have been collegial and beneficial. Here, the church has worked closely with civil magistrates to understand and apply the law.
But many still questioned civic leaders. I know of one pastor who frequently interacted with political leaders on social media. Others have written letters to regional leaders. These examples touch on what reformed theology means by appealing to the lesser magistrate (lesser magistrates are civic leaders who can challenge or resist higher levels of government). I believe churches should consider such an approach in 2021 if they have not already.
So here, I want to briefly describe what appealing to the lesser magistrate might look like in 2021 because Canadians have theological and legal options that they should pursue.
Has the government limited our freedom and justified those limitations?
In the first place, we should admit that Provincial governments have limited our freedom to worship, even if they have not infringed that freedom. Kristopher Kinsinger has argued this case persuasively in his National Post article that can be found here. He then followed that article up to clarify the difference between limit and infringement when it comes to the Charter of Rights, which can be found here.
While governments can limit the right to worship, they need to demonstrate why they can legally do so. André Schutten explains “The justification for a limit on freedom of peaceful assembly or freedom of religion is grounded in section 1 of the Charter, for which the Supreme Court has developed a four-part test.” This four-part test requires governments to prove that their limits on freedom are for sufficiently important reasons (see here for the full breakdown).
We may not have the legal or scientific wherewithal to counter or confirm decisions made by the Provincial governments. Yet we do have publicly accessible research and conclusions, which we can use both to inform our MPPs of such research and to make a case that our governments have yet to sufficiently justify their mandates.
Do more restrictive limits work?
I will give one such illustration. On January 5th 2021, four researchers from Stanford published the results of a peer-reviewed study on the effects of mandated COVID-19 restrictions and their actual impact on the reduction of the spread of the virus. After analyzing COVID restrictions in ten countries, they concluded that restrictions do reduce the spread of COVID. They also found “no clear, significant beneficial effect of [more restrictive non-Pharmaceutical interventions] on case growth in any country.” These more restrictive NPIs refer to stay-at-home orders and business closures. Do not take my word for it; read the research for yourself here.
I know current research is subject to change as new data comes along. That is the nature of science. Good science changes when new evidence comes to light. But the point here is: if current good science affirms the need to use restrictions but not more restrictive forms of it, should we not at least use such research to engage our local MPP (lesser magistrate) to appeal to the greater magistrate (Premier)?
The answer in my opinion is yes. A number of churches have been doing this for some time. So I suppose I am partly preaching to the choir here. Yet I do think it is worth saying that we have legal options—lesser magistrates to appeal to for the sake of evidence-based, informed decision making.
While I don’t have access to research that makes these connections directly, anecdotally, more restrictive NPIs seem to correlate very closely to opioid use, depression, and food shortage internationally. These things at least suggest a correlation to more restrictive NPIs. In any case, here is what I can say confidently. One in ten Canadians have contemplated suicide since the pandemic began. In Western Canada, young males have died in higher numbers than predicted in 2020—and they did not die of COVID. Opioid deaths in BC have skyrocketed. Famine and economic crises are predicted in 2021.
At one point, we have to make informed decisions to the best of our ability. For my part, I think we can at least reach out to MPPs to ask if they are aware of such detailed research as noted above and to seek their justification for current, more restrictive forms of non-Pharmaceutical interventions. If they do not work better than normal restrictive forms and if they contribute to other societal harms, then I think we ought to reach out to MPPs.
We cannot stop being Christians even when we disagree
But when we do so, we cannot suspend Christian ethics. Peter reminds us to defend the faith “with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet 3:15). Paul tells us we are “to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people” (Titus 3:2). There is no exception clause for politicians. We must show them “perfect courtesy” and “be gentle” with them too. Jesus had strong words for religious hypocrites. He was also divine. We are not. And “the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20)
In conclusion, the reformed teaching regarding the lesser magistrate as well as civil freedoms in Canada means that we can and should reach out to our leaders. In so doing, we must not suspend Christian ethics. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, and peace. We must show perfect courtesy. But I suspect at this point in the COVID journey, we should all at least consider reaching out to the lesser magistrate.
If the notion of the lesser magistrate or even political theology is new, consider the following resources:
- Bradford Littlejohn on “Resisting the Powers That Be” (here he explains the reformed doctrine of the lesser magistrate).
- Bradford Littlejohn on “Christian Citizenship and the Rule of Law”
- The Magdeburg Confession
- Luther and Calvin on Secular Authority
- Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations
- Sphere Sovereignty 101 (the previous resources tend to follow the two-kingdom model of political theology. Sphere sovereignty follows a more Dutch/Kuyperian approach to political theology)
- Jonathan Leeman, Political Church. See an in-depth review of the book here.