It’s hard to have missed it by now. James Coates, an Edmonton-area pastor of GraceLife church, has been jailed for repeatedly defying public health orders connected with the COVID-19 situation. The headlines and commentary on both sides of the surrounding debate are heated, as we could only expect.
I do want to affirm my respect for Coates and his courage to stand by his convictions. The kind of stance that he is taking is something that all Christians must be willing to take, just as our brothers and sisters around the world do every day.
However, I don’t think that Coates’ convictions and actions are a good and necessary consequence of Scripture’s teaching. Put simply, I don’t think his position is a biblical one. Thus, what he is suffering should not be confused with persecution. He was not “arrested for preaching,” as some sensationalized (and blatantly false) headlines have proclaimed. He is simply experiencing the consequences of breaking the law.
Submitting to God and Government
This past year has forced many Christians, myself included, to wrestle in a new way with our relationship with the government, and how this relationship interfaces with our allegiance to Jesus. Much of the ensuing discussion has centred on Romans 13:1-4, which is one of the main passages of Scripture which clearly addresses these issues. Coates himself just preached a sermon on the passage (https://gracelife.ca/sermons/directing-government/) which I will get to.
First, however, I want to suggest that a fixation on Romans 13:1-4 can distract us from a significant number of other New Testament passages which, taken together, should also shape the way that Christians respond to the government during seasons like this. Here’s a sample of some of those passages, with a few brief comments on each.
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.Luke 2:1–5
Caesar’s decree was hardly made for the purest of motives. And the taxes he would raise from this census were hardly going to be designated for godly means. Instead, we can assume they’d be used for building temples for Roman gods, funding the Roman army, and paying for gladiatorial games. And yet God used the actions of this vain power-monger to accomplish His purposes, landing Joseph and Mary back in Bethlehem for the fulfillment of the ancient promise.
Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”Luke 3:12–14
Tax collectors were viewed by their Jewish countrymen as traitors who extracted money from God’s people to fund the enterprises of the Roman Empire. Roman soldiers were the muscle of the empire, enforcing the desires of Ceasar and his governors—which meant jobs like conquering foreign nations and crucifying Jewish insurrectionists.
And if anybody was going to tell them to quit their job and have nothing to do with this ungodly government structure, it would be John the Baptist. Instead, he tells them to play by the rules and not use their position for their own personal agendas.
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil…And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.Matthew 5:38-39, 41
In order to understand this passage, we need to recognize that the principle of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was not about personal revenge. The right to extract an “eye for an eye” belonged to the Jewish courts, not to individuals. Thus, this passage is not so much about not taking revenge as it is about not fighting for your legal rights.
Verse 41 has the most significant implications for our interaction with the government: “And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” This refers to a practice that would have been familiar to Jesus’ original hearers. In the Roman Empire, there was a law that allowed a Roman soldier to force any civilian, at any point, to carry his luggage for a maximum distance of one mile.
This law is the background to Matthew 27:32: “As they went out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. They compelled this man to carry his cross.” In the original language, that word “compel” is the exact same word used by Jesus in Matthew 5:41, and it’s talking about the same practice.
How do you think the Jewish people liked this law? Hint: not very much. They hated it. It was an infringement on their rights and freedoms. It was a constant reminder that they were under the thumb of Rome. And, on top of this, by carrying a load for a soldier, they were actually assisting the enemy. They hated it.
But Jesus says not to resist the one who is evil, and if forced to go one mile, to go two. In other words, assist your oppressor twice as much as what he’s allowed to ask, all without complaining or fighting back.
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”Matthew 16:24
This verse has been so over-allegorized over the years that many Christians assume the “cross” we need to take up is something difficult in our life, like a cranky neighbour or a health condition. Jesus’ original hearers would not have made the same mistake. A cross was an instrument of torture, death, and dehumanization used by the oppressive Roman government to make the statement, “this is what will happen to all who oppose Rome.”
Jesus was on His way to be crucified. He was not going to “rise up” against the government but submit to their abuse, silent as a lamb before its shearers. Being one of His disciples means that we follow in His steps (1 Peter 2:19-23). We stand ready to carry our own crosses on our own shoulders, willing at any point to walk out to the place of our own crucifixion.
Again, for those tempted to make this a metaphor, we should remember how many of Jesus’ apostles died by crucifixion. They literally did pick up their crosses and follow in the footsteps of Jesus all the way to a death like His at the hands of an oppressive government.
Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.Titus 3:1–2.
I’m not sure much comment needs to be added to this one, except to point out that Nero was the emperor when these words were written.
Finally, we come to Romans 13. Here’s the passage itself:
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 whoever 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 the one 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. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.
Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.Romans 13:1–7
This is the passage so many Christians jump to right away, and it’s the passage that James Coates preached on this past Sunday. He began with verse one and a clear statement that the government authorities have been instituted by God. Therefore, their authority derives from the authority of God. So far, so good, right?
He went a step further, however, by stating that the government’s authority is only valid insofar as it aligns with the word of God, from whom their authority derives. In his words, a government “must govern by the standard by which they will be judged. Which is what? The Word of God. They are going to be judged by the word of God. They are accountable to God. And therefore they must govern in accord with the word of God.”1https://gracelife.ca/sermons/directing-government/
In other words, the government can only tell us to do stuff that fits with what God has already told us in His word. And when they don’t? Again, I’ll quote Coates himself:
“You see, complying with unbiblical unjust government laws is neither faithful nor loving… Is every government law an ordinance of God? We would have to say no. Otherwise when government orders an evil unjust law, God would be ordering evil. So no, when the government orders an unjust law it is not an ordinance of God. God does not order unjust laws… Do all government laws come with the authority of God? Again, we would have to say… no. Since their authority is delegated to them, their laws must be consistent with the law of God.”2https://gracelife.ca/sermons/directing-government/
Such an interpretation makes sense logically. It’s surely compelling to many Christians who don’t like the idea of obeying their government, especially when their government is telling them to do things they don’t like (such as staying home for an extended period of time). The problem is that this interpretation it is completely at odds with what Romans 13 itself is saying.
Think of it this way: if Christians only needed to obey the government insofar as the government lined up with God’s word, then why did Paul have to write Romans 13 in the first place? His letter to the Romans had already established that Christians submit to God and live to please him. It would seem awfully strange if the whole point of Romans 13 was to say, “Oh, by the way, you also need to obey God when the government is telling you to do what God wants.”
Instead, Romans 13:1-7 had to be written because Paul understood that the Roman Christians would struggle to obey their ungodly government. He knew full well that the Roman government was using its authority in ways that were not in full alignment with God’s word (like running pagan temples and gladiatorial games). And so the Roman Christians needed to be reminded of the importance of submitting anyways.3As Leon Morris wrote in his 1988 commentary, “On what Paul says the Christian is not justified in refusing obedience to the state because he has his doubts about the legal standing of the government… Paul is making it clear that the believer is to respect the state and not make himself the final arbiter.” Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Inter-Varsity Press, 1988), 461-462. The same could be said for those on Crete. Titus needed to “remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities” (Titus 3:1) precisely because doing so is difficult and not always obvious.
We could state things this way: just because the government’s authority comes from God does not mean that they must only be obeyed insofar as they are in alignment with God’s word. Consider, in this context, this exchange between Jesus and Pilate:
So Pilate said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.”John 19:10-11
Pilate had the authority to crucify Jesus. This authority had been given to him “from above,” i.e. from God. He was about to use it in an unjust way, way out of alignment with God’s word. But Jesus acknowledges that his authority is still valid, and He submits to it.
Should We Ever Disobey?
At this point I want to acknowledge that there are certainly cases where God’s people cannot obey the government—specifically, when we are being commanded to disobey a clear command from God. This was the situation when Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to bow down to the golden image, or when the Sanhedrin called in the apostles and “charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard’” (Acts 4:18–20).
These examples do not, however, imply that we are exempted from obeying any governmental command that doesn’t line up with God’s word. Again, see the example of Jesus. Or consider His teaching about carrying the load for the Roman soldier. If the Roman government were basing their laws on God’s word, that particular law would not exist. Conscripting civilians to do your grunt work isn’t exactly just, nor does it line up well with the mandate of Romans 13:3-4, but Jesus says to obey anyways.
In other words, this idea that we only need to comply with laws that are consistent with God’s laws is totally out of sync with God’s word itself. So is Coates’ statement, made in the message, that “the church, of all institutions, has this obligation, to call the government to its God-ordained duty.”4https://gracelife.ca/sermons/directing-government/
There is simply not a scrap of evidence in the New Testament for this assertion. Christians are told to submit to the government and to pray for our government leaders (1 Timothy 2:1-2), but nowhere are we told to “direct the government to it’s duty,” as the title of Coates’ sermon suggests. Such instruction is simply not there.
“The So-Called Pandemic“
Now, let’s ask an obvious question: why are we talking about all of this? The answer is certainly COVID-19, and the response of our governments to the virus situation. Ordinarily, if the government were to simply tell us “you Christians can’t meet together on Sunday mornings,” it would be fairly clear-cut. God’s word commands us otherwise (Hebrews 10:24-25), and this would be a case where we’d need to listen to God, not man (Acts 4:19).
But not everyone thinks its so clear-cut these days. It goes without saying that many Christians think the COVID-19 situation is quite serious, and that the government’s restrictions and health orders are a proper part of their duty to keep us safe. In fact, I know some Christians who think that the government isn’t going far enough, and who have criticized our church for being reckless when we have simply complied with the provincial guidelines.
So why is GraceLife church, and those who agree with them, suggesting that it’s time to disobey the government? It’s because they don’t think COVID-19 is as big of a deal as the government is making it out to be. As Coates said in his recent sermon, “I realize, at that point, you might say ‘But this is a pandemic. So these are extenuating circumstances.’ And if you said that, you would be wrong on two fronts. One, it isn’t a pandemic…”5https://gracelife.ca/sermons/directing-government/
As a statement on the front page of GraceLife’s website explains in detail (https://gracelife.ca/), the church leadership disagrees significantly with the government’s understanding of and response to the virus.
If you’ve done some research on this issue, you’ll know that there is some basis to what the GraceLife leadership is suggesting. Some scientists and medical professionals have those opinions.
But many do not. The scientific and healthcare community is not unanimous in their understanding of COVID-19 or their support of governmental policies like lockdowns. Show me five doctors who think that the government has gone too far, and I’ll give you five others who don’t think they’ve gone far enough.
This may stem from the fact that the empirical data itself can appear confusing. For example, some studies show that asymptomatic transmission is not happening6https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-19802-w, while other studies show that it accounts for more than half of all cases7https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2774707. COVID-19 is still an emerging situation, the kind that often takes years or even decades to fully understand. If the scientific community has not reached full consensus on every point, we should not be surprised. There’s so much we don’t know.
And so I offer the following questions to those who challenge the government’s take on COVID: what are your qualifications for deciding which experts are right, and which are wrong? How do you evaluate which doctors, researchers and epidemiologists you agree with, and which you don’t? What are your medical or scientific credentials which have equipped you to sift through all of the evidence from both “sides” and arrive at the conclusion that one significant group of highly-trained medical professionals is incorrect and that its advice should be disregarded, even when it is enforced with governmental authority?
Personally, I came to the conclusion early on that the COVID-19 situation is going to take a fair bit of time to fully understand, and that I am simply not equipped to evaluate between the competing opinions of the medical and scientific communities on this issue. Thus, it would be foolish of me to make any grand gestures related to disobeying the government’s guidelines, especially if it would encourage others to do the same.
Don’t Call It Persecution
James Coates and the leadership of GraceLife church disagree with the Alberta government regarding their understanding of and response to COVID-19. That’s fine and fair. They are allowed to do that. They have chosen to take their disagreement to the next level by not complying with the provincial guidelines, and are now suffering the consequences for this non-compliance.
This is what’s going on—not religious persecution. Churches in Alberta are not being targeted with more stringent measures than other organizations. They are simply being asked, along with everybody else, to comply with guidelines in the face of what the government believes to be a significant public health risk. GraceLife has not done this, and James Coates is now experiencing some of the consequences.
Why do I think that this distinction is important? Why did I feel compelled to write this article? My answer is that religious persecution is a real thing. Christians all over the world are targeted by governments for their faith every day. It’s not beyond the pale that we might experience the same thing here in Canada.
If that ever happens, we’ll need to be clear as to what is going on. We’ll need it to be obvious that we are being targeted for our religious convictions and not our obstinance, disobedience, or for acting on our unqualified scientific opinions. Picking a fight with the provincial government over an emerging and highly complicated epidemiological situation, and then calling that persecution, only muddies the waters and encourages an unnecessarily negative perspective of Christians.
For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.1 Peter 2:20
If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.1 Peter 4:14–16
I’ve prayed for James Coates and his family this week. I encourage you to do the same. I don’t encourage you to follow in his footsteps. But if you do, and you suffer the consequences, please don’t call it persecution.