“You’re invited to our drive-in service this Sunday with live outdoor preaching!”
Though that line would have made no sense to us a year ago, most Canadian churches have adapted to the restrictions aimed to stop the spread of COVID-19. But some church leaders remain adamant that “for the church to exist, it must gather” regularly in person, as Pastor Jacob Reaume of Trinity Bible Chapel in Waterloo, Ontario, has stated. Six elders along with the church are facing charges for holding in-person services on December 27, 2020. And they aren’t the only church leaders opposing various provincial COVID-19 regulations.
In January, Fairview Baptist Church in Calgary was fined for violating various Alberta Health regulations and encouraging its members to do so. Toronto International Celebration Church and Wellandport United Reformed Church in Southern Ontario gained media attention recently for launching constitutional challenges in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice. Both churches have stressed they are not COVID-19 deniers and have observed all government regulations to date, but are concerned about the imposition of further restrictions on freedom of religion and assembly. Two Baptist churches in Alberta – Heights Baptist in Medicine Hat and Northside Baptist in Calgary – filed a similar challenge in the Court of Queen’s Bench, Calgary. Meanwhile, according to its website, the Calgary-based Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedom is filing court actions in five provinces “to end the Charter-violating lockdowns” affecting the rights of assembly and religion, including public protests and worship gatherings.
What’s the Christian witness of these churches, in our already-polarized time? The same question can be asked of churches south of the border and overseas. In my Scottish homeland, 27 church leaders have sued the government for “criminalizing” in-person worship, claiming that the coronavirus regulations imposed this January “are in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights [Articles 9 and 11] and the Scottish Constitution.” Meanwhile, well-known Grace Community Church in Southern California continues to meet indoors in great numbers in defiance of Los Angeles public health officials. The list goes on.
One can understand the perceptions of seemingly arbitrary and inconsistent government policies, as well as have empathy for lonely shut-ins and the financially devastated, not to mention the increased numbers of suicide and domestic violence victims. It is also possible to understand the frustration of those living in areas least affected who nevertheless are required to observe the same restrictions as the rest of us. But is government confrontation really the appropriate Christian response?
Judging by some of the public reaction, these efforts are often perceived as Christians putting their own self-interest before the common good in an age when it is now possible to meet and worship electronically in the (relative) short-term. Millions of fellow-believers around the world are forbidden to worship at all and are severely persecuted when they do. I suspect they would be more than happy to live under a government that seeks what it perceives to be best for all its citizens by imposing temporary restrictions on public gatherings.
Should we not be known as those who are prepared to go the extra mile in obeying our governments (Rom 13:1-4) even when we don’t agree, praying for them (1 Tim 2:1-2), even being willing to suffer for the sake of righteousness, as Christ was (1 Peter 2: 13ff., 3:3a)? We are, of course to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29) when called to. But let’s be very sure about when that is.