Updated Saturday at 6:00 pm.
A week ago, I wrote an article here on my church website called “Don’t Call it Persecution,” about the arrest of James Coates. In the days since, I’ve been getting emails about the article from people all over the country. Apparently it’s been circulated far more widely than I ever would have guessed.
And I’m sad. I’m sad about this whole situation. I’m sad about all of the division in the church that is so evident through all of this. I’m sad about all of the emails repeating, yet again, that “our church is really divided on this issue.” I’m sad that I had to write a critical article about a brother with whom I have so much in common. I’m sad that the church in Canada seems to be reflecting—and sometimes revelling in—the polarizations that characterize public discourse in our era. I’m sad.
My Respect for James Coates
In last week’s article, I stated my appreciation and respect for James Coates. Those were not just filler words. I really meant them. He is someone with whom, as far as I can tell, I have a lot in common. Like him, I have a very high view of preaching. Like him, I have a very high view of pastoring and shepherding. Like him, I have a very high view of the church.
Like him, I believe that a church is not “just the people,” as I’ve been hearing lately. Like him, I believe that a New Testament church is the people gathered. Like him, I believe that watching a livestream on your couch is not a biblical reflection of the church.
(If some of this sounds confusing to you, I preached some messages on the nature of the church last spring—which you can find here—which unpack all of this.)
I didn’t spell all of this out in last week’s article, because it was written primarily for my own church, who understands all of this. When our church was still live-streaming last spring, they heard me say almost ever week, “This is not the way things should be. We should be together. But this is better than nothing during this season.” My church knows that we moved to a local gym last fall, going through all the work of setting up and tearing down each week as if we were a church plant, just so that we could all be together in one room. Even at the current time, when we’re meeting in four separate gatherings, they’ve heard me say, “These are not church services. These are gatherings of a part of our church until such a time as we can gather together as a body again.”
All of this this contributes to my sadness this week. I don’t enjoy criticizing anybody, but especially not someone with whom I have much in common.
Our Polarized Age
We live in an age of polarization. “Polarization,” according to one dictionary, is “division into two sharply contrasting groups or sets of opinions or beliefs.” It describes the practice of picking sides and painting everybody on the “other side” with a big, broad brush.
The COVID-19 situation has tended to be polarizing among Christians. Many people have seen this issue as one of “sides,” and they’ve been quick to pass judgement on those on the “other side.”
If, for example, you believe that Christians should be submitting to the government guidelines during this season, it’s probably been easy for you to think that everybody on the “other side” is rebellious, or has bought into conspiracy theories, or cares more about civic freedoms than following Jesus, or doesn’t care about the people actually dying of the virus, etc.
If you are on that “other side,” you might be encouraged to see all of the guideline-followers as “sheeple,” or those with no courage, or people with a low view of the church, or people who will roll over and play dead to any demand the government ever makes of us in the future.
I listened to an interview this week with someone close to the GraceLife situation, and they were asked about Canadian pastors who have publicly disagreed with James Coates. Their response went along the lines of, “It’s so sad to see so many people today who have a low view of the church and a low view of God, and what are we going to do when the government starts mandating that we can’t teach a biblical view of marriage?”
This is what I mean by “polarizing.” I may happen to agree with this person that many Canadian Christians don’t have a high enough view of the church, but in that context, their answer was not helpful. It only deepens a sense of “us-vs-them,” furthering the notion that if you don’t support James Coates then you must be a coward with bad theology.
Their answer, furthermore, did not take into consideration that some people might disagree with Coates simply because they have some reservations with his interpretation of Romans 13 and some disagreements with his read on the severity of the COVID-19 situation.
This is why, if you go back to my article last week, you’ll see that I made no comments on James Coates’ attitude, character, motivations, or heart. I simply addressed his words and his actions. Just the facts. I disagreed with him, but did not pass judgement on him, a crucial distinction often missing in current dialogue. I have no intention nor desire to paint Coates—or any of his supporters—with a broad brush. I disagree with him on some issues, but probably agree with him on more.
Christians must be able to respectfully disagree, carefully interacting with each other’s differences with clarity and conviction, without descending into trench warfare. I’m saddened that such charitable disagreement seems to be in such short supply these days.
So to reiterate what I said last week, I disagree with James Coates’ interpretation of Romans 13. I don’t think he’s correct on that file. I also disagree with his take on COVID-19. And I would still argue that, given Alberta’s health restrictions (which are allowing churches to remain open at the same capacity as retail spaces, while theatres and libraries are all closed), it is not accurate to describe his arrest as persecution.
(If you’re still struggling with this, let me describe it for you this way: if our church outgrew our building’s rated capacity, and we wanted to keep packing people in anyways, and the government started to fine us for exceeding fire code capacity, would that be persecution? And if we replied that “the risks of fire around here are really small, and only a few people per capita die each year of fires—and they are usually quite old anyways— and Caesar has no authority over the church,” would that be a biblical position to hold? Nothing has convinced me what James Coates is facing is, in principle, any different than this.)
But with that being said, I do admire him for standing up for his convictions, something I said (and meant!) in my article last week. I believe that every pastor in Canada must be ready to take the kind of stand that he is taking, which is again something I said (and meant!) in my article last week.
In conclusion, my sadness this week has driven me to prayer for the church in Canada. We belong to the Lord Jesus Christ. We are citizens of His global kingdom. We’ve been bought with His blood and invested with a mission of eternal significance that transcends times and cultures. COVID-19 and our differing opinions about it are small beans compared to the great and glorious things we have in common.
May the Lord help us to disagree well even as we stand together for His glory in our generation.