The recent events surrounding James Coates, Artur Pawlowski, and other pastors/churches in Canada have spurred a flurry of online debate, asking if what is happening to the Canadian church qualifies as Christian persecution. I find it rather sad that this is a question in modern Evangelicalism that needs to be answered, however, that is precisely what I aim to do in this post. In my estimation, this problem arises when one has a rather myopic understanding of what qualifies as persecution.
Some outright deny this to be persecution because they argue these churches could still be meeting, albeit under the restrictions and limitations in place. In other words, they say this isn’t persecution, not only because they can meet if they abide under the restrictions from the Canadian government, but for the simple reason that the COVID restrictions are not strictly limited to Christians. Thus, they argue that in order for it to be genuine Christian persecution, the Canadian government would need to target only Christians in their COVID regulations.
Secondly, they argue that Canadian churches simply need to be more creative, one such solution being that they implement multiple services and enforce the various mandates the government has put forth. Another solution that many have continued to utilize at this point are video services (i.e. “online church). In this, there is an implicit understanding that so long as the church can legally “meet” in some form and in some way, it doesn’t qualify as persecution. Part and parcel to this is that the current restrictions are in place only for a season of time, not indefinitely. However, arguably, even if they were indefinite, a logical conclusion to this position is that it would still not qualify as bonafide persecution, namely, because they could still meet in some capacity.
Others deny this to be persecution because they envision Christian persecution only in its most severe forms. Thus, for it to qualify as persecution, there needs to be physical persecution (i.e. beatings, maiming, imprisonment, death, etc.), a forcible rescinding of one’s faith, open hostility to only the Christian faith, examples of individuals being explicitly targeted on account of their faith, and more. In other words, they define persecution quite narrowly, and that which doesn’t fit the mold, so to speak, doesn’t qualify.
You can see how there is some semantic overlap in these categories that allows reasoning to extend between such positions. In example: one will argue the COVID restrictions are not intended to target the Christian church, therefore, the imprisonment of James Coates and Artur Pawlowski, and whomever may follow, are not valid forms of persecution. If these men were found to be obedient to the restrictions, arguably, they would have avoided jail time. They have failed to be in submission to their governmental authorities, per Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:11-17. Thusly, they have failed to meet the purported criteria for persecution on every front, and therefore, these men and their constituents ought to repent and submit themselves to their governing authorities.
The problem with every one of these positions is that they fail to take into account the varying degrees of persecution that Scripture recognizes. Furthermore, they reject the notion that civil disobedience is required of Christians when those ruling over them impose burdens that hinder, stop, or attack the work of Christ and His church. Finally, many engage in fallacious arguments against a slippery slope argument—meaning more clearly, they spot a slippery slope argument, and automatically assign it to be fallacious, even though a slippery slope argument is only fallacious when there is no mechanism from which one reasonably moves from “Point A” to “Point B.”
The primary term in focus here for “persecution” is διώκω, which is used in various ways throughout the New Testament. In many cases, it is used quite broadly and doesn’t denote any particular physical altercation (Matt 5:44; Lk. 11:49). In fact, Scripture uses an altogether different term for martyrdom than διώκω, which means that even at first glance, we can’t limit this term to physical manifestations of persecution alone. In other instances, the term is used to speak of driving people from city to city (Matt. 10:23, 23:3), bringing people before various authorities to be tried (Lk 21:12), binding and imprisoning people (Acts 22:4), and more.
Many times, as you will have seen above in various references, διώκω (persecute) is used in conjunction with similar terms that denote some form of open hostility and violence toward those in Christ. The point being that while διώκω (persecute) may be used, modified, or inferred from to speak of physical persecution, it is not always the case. Multiple times, we find other terms to further inform the nature of persecution being referred to. In others, we find it applied rather broadly because the intent of the passage is not to speak directly to the particular kind of persecution being endured. In addition to this, other terms frequently arise that speak of specific kinds of mistreatment against those who pledge fidelity to Christ.
We find that Christians are hated (Jn. 15:18-19; Lk. 6:22; 1 Jn. 3:13), insulted (1 Pet. 4:14; 2 Cor. 12:10) suffer for doing good (1 Pet. 3:17, 4:15-16), cast out as evil (Lk. 6:22; in Jn. 16:2 we find a different word to describe “putting one out” from the synagogues), insulted (Lk. 6:22; 1 Pet. 4:14), mocked/reviled (Matt. 5:11), slandered (Matt. 5:11). Then, of course, we find the most severe forms of persecution that Christians may face, in beatings, stonings, killings, and more (Matt. 24:9; Jn. 16:2; 2 Cor. 11:25; Acts 14:19, 16:22). Suffice it to say, Scripture has a rather broad range of words to describe mistreatment against those who bear the name of Christ, which has particular application to the predicament we find ourselves in today. The point being: it is simply false to assume persecution can only be limited to the most severe forms of persecution we find in the Bible.
In Matt. 5:10 we find the reason for persecution is “because of righteousness,” which then finds its continuation in v. 11 to denote that this is “because of Christ.” It is important to note that these categories are not referring to the simple preaching of the gospel, though this would be included under the auspices of what Matthew is writing. Rather, the two reasons (because of righteousness or because of Christ) are seen as one, in that an allegiance to Jesus Christ produces an imitation of Jesus Christ (i.e. personal righteousness). The implications of this are quite broad, as it would be referring to the whole of the Christian life in submission to Christ. However, it does give particular guidelines on the nature of genuine persecution, in that it must be as a result of doing what is right. It likewise informs us that enemies of righteousness are enemies of Christ. In both cases, persecution on account of righteousness and persecution on account of Christ Himself are seen as inseparable realities.
It can be brought on as a result of faithfulness to preaching the gospel (Gal. 5:11), living a godly life (Matt. 5:10; 2 Tim. 3:12), and more—but all of it is bound up in faithfulness to Christ Himself, which is what differentiates Christian persecution from what the world deems persecution. In this, the apostle Peter is quick to note that as a Christian suffers from persecution, it is not to be as a result of their own sin (1 Pet. 4:12-19). Thus, in a similar line of reasoning to Christ Himself, those who suffer on account of unrighteousness, or perhaps better put, endure the consequences to their own foolishly sinful choices, are not enduring persecution.
This is an important distinction for various reasons, one of which being that we are to show no sympathy to those who are being disciplined rightly for their sinful actions. I draw attention to the fact that it must be sinful namely, because this is what Peter does; he identifies those who are murderers, thieves, evil doers, and busybodies/meddlers. Some might wish to latch on to the concept of a busybody or troublesome meddler and assign this to individuals like James Coates and Artur Pawlowski, but the term implies nefarious activity—not what we would coin as civil disobedience (which I will touch on shortly). In other words, the term ἀλλοτριεπίσκοπος (often translated as busybody) refers to those who meddle in affairs that do not pertain to them, or more sinisterly, one conceals stolen goods, acts as a spy or informant, and in some cases, simply causes mischief for no good reason. In other words, this action is born out of malice, and bears no relation to the service of Christ and His church.
I draw this out because many impugn the motives of men like James Coates, Artur Pawlowski, and any who do likewise. However, this falls flat because the motives of these men are not born out of any sort of malice toward even their governing authorities, but fidelity to Scripture’s call for the church to assemble (Heb. 10:25). Earlier, I mentioned that civil disobedience is required of Christians when those ruling over them impose burdens that hinder, stop, or attack the work of Christ and His church. The reasons I say a hindrance, stop, or attack of the work of Christ and His church is that yet again, these are the very same things we see the apostles face in the New Testament (Acts 4:18-19, 5:27-29, 9:1-6 19:21-41; 2 Tim. 4:14-15).
In other words, it is not a mere, forcible “stop order” from the synagogues, nor even the fierce persecution of Paul against early Christians which qualifies an action requiring disobedience against existing authorities. Rather, according to the definition of “persecution” given in Matt. 5:10-12 that inhibits righteousness and fidelity to Christ, it involves anything and everything that would touch on such things. By its very nature then, sanctions imposed by governing authorities which force Christians into positions of unfaithfulness, or even simply restrict the free exercise of faithfulness to the commands of Scripture. In other words: one need not bar the church from meeting altogether to be found guilty of hindering and attacking the work of Christ and His church.
Now, I will diverge from my Libertarian brothers by arguing that one’s governing authorities have been given the authority to wield the sword, meaning quite clearly that they do have the fundamental, God-given right to implement sanctions and punishments in accord to those sanctions. However, this does not necessitate that each sanction implemented is befitting their purpose in being an arm of retribution to the evil doer, rather than a terror to the one who does good. Thus, they indeed can and do make laws and prohibitions that are fundamentally unjust, and they can likewise require submission to such unjust laws and prohibitions—but the Christian has an obligation to “obey God rather than man” (Acts 5:29). In other words: civil authorities can make any such law they deem necessary and enforce these laws as they please, but we recognize that they, at best, have penultimate authority, and are servants of God, whether they recognize such or not.
In this then, we ought to acknowledge that if we disobey the civil authorities for proper reasons, they do have the intrinsic authority to wield the sword against us—yet we must likewise acknowledge they will in turn be judged for how they have wielded this sword. The point in this being that we ought not be shocked when spheres of authority utilize the sword to bring consequences against us for obeying God as our ultimate authority. In fact, we ought to expect this, and as the apostle Paul reminds us, rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that we share in the sufferings of Christ (Rom. 8:17; Phil. 3:10; 1 Pet. 4:13). We ought to likewise recognize the pattern in Scripture from those who have gone before us, and suffered as a result of faithfulness to God that required intentional unfaithfulness to their civil authorities (Dan. 3:8-25, 6).
This then turns my attention to those who agree with me thus far, namely, because my point to you is that you must suffer if you are going to be faithful to Christ and His commandments. It is one thing to say we ought to disobey the civil authorities over us, it is another to make sure those areas of disobedience are actually ones which necessitate disobedience—meaning the occasion for civil disobedience is not for things we don’t like, but for things that genuinely lead us into sin, or impede, stop, or attack the work of Christ and His church. Yet more than this: it is one thing to say you are willing to disobey even over those matters which rightly fall under this jurisdiction, but another thing entirely to be willing to suffer for this end.
Now, it is painfully obvious that those who are content under the over-reaching authority of government sanctions on the assembling of the body will not be willing to suffer for that end. There are a host of other issues related to all things COVID which have been brought to the surface, which trouble me deeply, such as the notion of “online church” being a viable replacement for in-person services. Another would be how quickly and easily many are willing to split services tenfold in order to accommodate these same restrictions, especially when they believe it doesn’t prove detrimental to the health and wellbeing of a body that is knit together for service and mutual edification, by Christ Himself, in that particular locale. The latter I bring to attention not to indict these men of being faithless, but simply to ask: at what point does it become a fundamental overreach of those in authority? Where and when will a line be drawn, if any?
What troubles me most, however, is how easily many under-shepherds have proven to neglect their duties over the course of the pandemic, yet hitch their causes to social issues prevalent in our day. Many of us will never forget the astounding hypocrisy of shuttering the church to go marching. We will likewise fail to see the rationale in seeing Home Depot, Bed Bath & Beyond, fast food chains, strip clubs, abortion centers, and the like, qualify as “essential” businesses, and churches deemed non-essential. I personally cannot reconcile how many a pastor agreed with the assessment of the magistrate—that indeed—church is not essential during such a time as this, when souls were most in need of care.
At the end of it all, I believe one of the fundamental reasons why so many Evangelicals despise men like James Coates and Artur Pawlowski is that they have proven they have spine. They “put their money where their mouth is,” and revealed a cowardice that is part and parcel to so much of what gets classified as “Christian wisdom” this day and age. It reminds me of all the times I have seen Christians laude the courage of faithful, bold, and dangerous Christians of the past—those men and women who drew a line and refused to back down, despite the very real threats around them in that moment.
I’m even reminded of those who rightly fawned over those faithful Christians at ground zero in Wuhan when the pandemic first hit, who put on the apron of a slave, and served those they knew were likely infected. It was especially amazing because none of us knew what was going on in the slightest at that time; their boldness and courage in the face of looming death inspired us, and for good reason. Yet when things got serious and cases of COVID starting popping up elsewhere, many hunkered down. In the beginning, again, this was an understandable reaction; no one knew the degree of seriousness with which we ought to treat things.
At this point though, it has become a veritable circus—a dog and pony show—to excuse fear and an over-reliance on the government as a stand-in savior. It undoubtedly constitutes a means of persecuting the church by the hand of those at the top, who have displayed an astounding amount of hypocrisy and double-standards in their regulations enacted for the “safety and wellbeing” of the people. The examples of James Coates and Artur Pawlowski serve as a sort of pledge to the saints: ordinary means of civil disobedience will bring with it swift crackdowns. These men were being faithful shepherds, doing the work that Christ commands of them, and refusing to let the idol of safety rule in the church.
The government’s job is not to keep you and I safe. Despite how many seem to take authorities at their word, I simply can’t find it within reason to take that at face value. There is always a stated reason why things are done, and likewise, an unstated reason. History has shown us that even at its best, a government largely serves its own interests. How much more so a government who has no desire to be in submission to God and His Word? How much more so a government that is in the lap of the Evil One (Lk. 4:6; 1 Jn. 5:19)?
This then brings me to my final point: the slippery slope. A slippery slope argument is only fallacious when there is no mechanism from which one reasonably moves from “Point A” to “Point B.” I believe the way COVID has been handled provided many governmental entities and officials a wonderful mechanism to exploit for various, nefarious ends. Given the way things are continuing to be handled in places like Canada, I have sincere doubts they will feel a sudden surge of benevolence. It is time for the church to wake up and take note of what is more than likely headed your way. Based on the various forms of persecution noted in the Scriptures, you are already experiencing some of that right now, that is, if you are being faithful to Christ.