It is well past the one-year anniversary of our 2-week lockdown here in Alberta, Canada, and things are already appearing to be reverting back to where we started as we enter a third wave of the pandemic. In the wake of this, many businesses, retailers, restaurants, sports and entertainment venues as well as places of worship have been bending over backwards in order to comply to public health regulations as best as they can. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for all. As it turns out, a church denomination near the city of Edmonton has made headlines due to their non-compliance to government health regulations due to the COVID-19 virus outbreak.
As a Christian and a fellow Edmontonian, I am embarrassed to see how my city has captured international attention due to the situation with GraceLife Church — in more ways than just one. According to local news sources, Pastor James Coates was finally released from prison with a $1500 fine. In court, he stated to the judge,
“I am not a political revolutionary. I am simply here in obedience with Jesus Christ, it is this obedience that put me at odds with the law.”
In an interview with The Rebel shortly after Coates was released from the Edmonton Remand Centre, his response to his critics was as follows:
“So I understand that. I think…. I think in our world we are so used to people doing things for vain glory. We are not used to seeing men and women of conviction that will take a principled stand based on real conviction tethered to reality as it is, because Jesus Christ is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and… so I get it. They don’t know me and so, looking from afar, I can totally get it. I can totally understand that being suspicious… just being…. just thinking something uh that this is suspect on my end I get that but, and I don’t even know I really care to be honest with you. This is not about what the people think this is about the Lord Jesus Christ and so I am here to please Him, honor Him, glorify Him. Where the chips fall thereafter is out of my hands. And, uh, and so I get it. I understand it. But they just don’t know me and don’t know my heart, and just can’t understand what I’m doing because they’ve never seen anything like this before.”
As Christians, there is truth behind the statement that following Christ will certainly place you in difficult positions where you have to choose between obeying people on earth or staying true to God’s commandments as revealed through Scripture. Passages in the Bible suggest that we are not called to conform to the standards of the world but to be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit living within us (Romans 12:2). However, this doesn’t mean that we are justified to disobey our governments in every situation. In fact, Scripture calls us to obey our governments when it’s necessary:
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.”
— Romans 13:1-7 RSV
“And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true, and care for no man; for you do not regard the position of men, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a coin, and let me look at it.” And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were amazed at him.” — Mark 12:14-17 RSV
I cannot speak for what lies within Pastor Coates’ heart, but based on what I’ve seen in the interview, I do believe he is sincere in where he stands. But like most prominent public figures, religious leaders and clergy can be susceptible to becoming enamored with the power of their own influence. When certain political activists and protestors get arrested and thrown in jail for partaking in civil disobedience, sometimes it’s considered a badge of honor. People will and already have been viewing Pastor James Coates as a hero and an example of leadership against an allegedly tyrannical government akin to Roman rule. The idea of becoming a martyr or a saint can have the same appeal as being a hero of war who will be remembered for ages to come. This is why, in my opinion, the idea of flouting masks or physical distancing measures is wrongfully conflated with obedience to Christ. This temptation to perform certain acts to garner attention for personal gratification is warned about in Scripture:
“Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” — Matthew 6:1 RSV
Many Christians often feel that facing any form of pushback is a sign of being in God’s favor. This usually stems from scriptural verses such as,
“Then they will deliver you up to tribulation, and put you to death; and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away, and betray one another, and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because wickedness is multiplied, most men’s love will grow cold. But he who endures to the end will be saved.” — Matthew 24:9-13 RSV
“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But all this they will do to you on my account, because they do not know him who sent me.” — John 15:18-21
We may live in a post-Christian society, but our governments have not punished us on the basis of our faith in the midst of this pandemic. It’s easy for people to draw parallels between what happened to Christians living under Emperor Nero or even Jews during the Holocaust. But the truth is what we are facing right now is not even remotely close to the level of hardship endured in those days. In my article My Thoughts on the Christian Persecution Complex, I touched on the subject that North American Christians are often notorious for conflating minor adversity to having their faith under attack. There may come a time when Christians may be driven underground and forced to practice their faith in secret — but in the context of a worldwide pandemic, faith is not even the issue at hand. People are not being gathered en masse to be nailed to crosses, fed to lions or hauled to gas chambers over their belief in Jesus. Church gatherings are being limited for the same reason movie theatres, sporting events and concerts have been shut down — not because of matters of faith, but because of a virus that has taken the lives of over 23, 251 Canadians as of today. That’s enough to completely fill the seats and arena of Rogers Place, which pales in comparison to the mortality rate in the United States.
As someone who has struggled with keeping my faith in Christ in the past, what this whole situation has shown me is the only time some self-described Christians care about evangelism is when it fills the seats in their congregation on Sundays. Non-religious folks will look at their behavior and they will not see a loving God at work who believes they have inherent and immeasurable worth. They will see a group of people who value their buildings, their large gatherings, their rights and their privileges more than they value the lives of those who may be immunocompromised. They will see euthanasia without the serum nor consent, paired with the amplified sounds of contemporary worship music praising a God who values mercy over sacrifice — yet mercy is sacrificed at the altar of freedom. There are those who truly value the well-being of those made in the image of God, and there are those who care more about doing what is right within their own eyes (or in the eyes of a god created in their own image).
What this pandemic has certainly shown me is that the wheat is certainly being separated from the chaff — but not in the cliched apocalyptic sense of Christ returning to separate believers and non-believers. Families, friends and whole communities are being divided over the very issue of their personal safety from two invisible enemies — one that can only be seen under a microscope and manifests itself in how our bodies react to it; the other that enters our minds, tickles our ears with deception and manifests itself through our vices. This is why one of the most underutilized verses in the New Testament reads as such,
“But some one will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you foolish fellow, that faith apart from works is barren? You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.” — James 2:18-20,24,26 RSV
Many congregations throughout Edmonton (including my former denomination as well as my current parish) have been improvising solutions to stay connected with their members while doing the best they can to adhere to public heath regulations. Many church-goers have taken it upon themselves to do meal drop-offs at people’s doorsteps, volunteer to offer childcare and pool money together to help struggling families keep their head above water. Hundreds (if not thousands) of people all over the world have died without receiving sacraments or fellowship that would have given them the peace and comfort they needed while transitioning from this world to the life hereafter.
If limited gatherings are the biggest barrier for the Church to gather, then the worship needs to be brought out in the open. In my own journey of faith as a Catholic, one of the Bible verses that has stuck with me throughout the years is Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” The first page in my first Catholic Mass book given to me for my First Communion reads that the Church is not a building nor limited to a building. Even if all the chapels and cathedrals were suddenly destroyed, the Church lives within the hearts of the faithful. If the Early Church was able to meet at people’s homes, then present-day Christians can certainly adapt to the current circumstances and bring the presence of Christ to their streets, front yards or doorsteps. Our buildings are not what define us as believers in Christ, but our deeds that spring forth from our love for Christ and neighbor that cannot be contained by a lockdown.