The question that is likely high in every pastor’s mind right now is: “Should my church obey or disobey the COVID-19 gathering restrictions?” 

Churches and denominations must decide for themselves what their answers will be. While CCCC will not tell churches what to do, we will help your church make an informed choice. Our COVID-19 commitment to our members outlines our thoughts on the pandemic-related restrictions and our support for our members to practice their beliefs. To give you context for the issue, we have also published brief histories of the Church’s responses to pandemics of the past and of Christians and choices about civil disobedience

This post will lay out some considerations for four basic responses to the gathering restrictions.

Four Response Options 

There are four main ways to respond to the gathering restrictions. They are:

  1. Comply with the law.
  2. Consult or advocate with the appropriate authorities.
  3. Challenge the restrictions with either a legal challenge or a protest.
  4. Disobey the restrictions and risk the penalties with the intention of winning in court. 

The real choice is between Comply and Disobey. The other two options are intermediate steps that can be taken in addition to the choice to comply or disobey. 

In reading blogs and chats and seeing what people are saying, there are lots of misrepresentations of the opposite viewpoint. Everyone, no matter what your position on the choices, should read up on the reasoning of our brothers and sisters who hold the opposite opinion and allow them to speak for themselves. If you listen only to people with your own opinion interpreting what they think the viewpoints of others are, you will most likely be misled by bias because these interpretations can be very simplistic.

This article by David Robertson (pastor of a church in Dundee, Scotland for 27 years, Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland 2015-16, contributor to Christianity Today, and currently leader of an evangelism ministry in Sydney, Australia) is the best introduction I could find to the issues that you should consider in making your decision. He takes the most even-handed approach to the comply/disobey decision I’ve come across. He outlines the arguments for both sides before making a recommendation that is a bit like “having your cake and eating it too.”

The Comply/Disobey Rationales

In this post, I’m giving people from both viewpoints equal time (about 3,400 words if you follow the links) to speak in their own words. I’ve searched through a lot of material to find the best, most concise arguments from the comply/disobey rationales and will provide links to those articles.

Remember, be sure to read and give thoughtful consideration to the side that you currently disagree with, or you will not make a truly informed decision! Think of it as though you and three others were taking a picture of something. Borrow their “camera” (which is different from yours) and look at the subject through their lenses rather than yours. In his January 16th newsletter, Ray Pennings of Cardus makes this same point with three questions:

  • First, have I read and heard the other side?
  • Second, what are the deeper concerns that prompt the opposite position? 
  • Third, how can I resist the temptation to brand those with whom I passionately disagree as permanently different and anathema?

Attitude is critical

“I am giving you a new commandment, that you love one another; just as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all people will know that you are My disciples: if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35

CCCC recognizes that well-meaning and faithful Christians can end up on opposite sides of a debate. We all want to be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ, and we must remember that we are members of one family and that we are commanded by Jesus to love one another. So all our conversations on this matter need to be civil, respectful, and assuming the best of those with whom we disagree. Otherwise, you may find in the end that even if you are right, you displeased the Lord by your behaviour.

If you are a CCCC member, you can go to The Green and contribute to the discussion there.

Comply

Pastor Rick Warren explained why he is complying with COVID-19 restrictions in an interview on December 21st, in which he said:

“Some churches are willing to gamble the health of their people. I’m not. The good shepherd prays for his sheep, cares for his sheep. One day I will be responsible. I don’t want to be a super-spreader. I’m not doing this out of fear; I’m doing this out of love. You wear a mask for love of your neighbors, yourself.”

Baptist News

Dr. Richard Land, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, NC and formerly president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote a thoughtful and well-researched article last March on why churches should comply with the restrictions. Since he has not returned to this topic in his very active blog, it appears his answer would still be the same today.

A few days ago, pastor Paul Bickley of Trinity Vineyard Church in London, UK, explained in this article why he voluntarily closed his church building shortly before the law forced him to. He takes a pastoral approach and distinguishes between the church as a building and the church as a congregation.

Pastor David Navarro, in a Facebook post at the end of November, said “The primary narrative of the Jesus movement is not about Jesus instituting MEETINGS. It’s about Jesus decisively CONQUERING DEATH. This is why the central event of the narrative is the resurrection of Jesus. Because of this, the most basic ethic of a disciple is to, like Jesus, actively oppose any forces of death – whether the death of our spirit, or of our mental health, or of our body (since they’re all integrated, because we’re whole beings). Gathering together is part of the story, but it falls under a greater mandate to oppose forces which bring death, harm, decay, or chaos. This virus is such a force.”

Disobey

Pastor John MacArthur presented the case last July for why his church is disobeying the pandemic restrictions:

“It has never been the prerogative of civil government to order, modify, forbid, or mandate worship. When, how, and how often the church worships is not subject to Caesar. Caesar himself is subject to God.”

The Federalist

In December, Pastor Aaron Rock of Harvest Bible Church in Windsor, ON was charged with reopening his church unlawfully. The church followed health and safety protocols but exceeded the gathering limit. He wrote a comprehensive article on why churches should not obey the pandemic restrictions. This article is long enough to capture the breadth of the arguments for civil disobedience.

Indicators for the Four Options

Indicators favouring compliance

The starting point should always be to comply with government laws and regulations, as the New Testament is clear that Christians are to obey their governments,  unless a particular government directive is deemed to be unjust. In that case, Christians can move directly to a more active step to change the law. The principle is to start with Comply, then move to Consult, Challenge, and Disobey in that order.

Churches are likely to comply when they see the restrictions as:

  • Temporary
  • Having a rationale with factual support
  • Reasonable in light of the goal they are meant to achieve
  • Having effects that
    • Align with an incarnational theology of community and suffering
    • Provide a good witness to Jesus Christ and the Church, thus helping with evangelism
    • Promote innovation and vitality in churches as we seek and listen to the Holy Spirit in unusual circumstances

Indicators favouring consultation

Consulting with people who have the power or the influence to bring about the change you want means that you are constructively working with them to problem-solve a solution that everyone can live with. This option is viable if:

  • You have goodwill because you are complying.
  • You have expertise and a fact-based proposal that will carry weight in the secular world.
  • You can reach people who can make a difference. This may be a politician, a policy analyst, or other person of influence who in turn has the ear of the person who can make the decision you want.

As an example, CCCC, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, and Christian Legal Fellowship submitted a joint letter in May to provincial Ministers of Health and Chief Medical Officers of Health and will continue to make submissions.

Indicators favouring challenge

A challenge is more adversarial than consulting is. A legal challenge or peaceful protest creates a confrontation and is a little riskier because the outcome could reinforce the way things are, the very thing you are trying to change. But this is a good option if:

  • You have obtained legal advice that your challenge has reasonable grounds.
  • You can make a strong case for how the public will benefit from a win (to minimize people thinking the legal challenge is for selfish reasons that only benefit churches). 

Toronto International Celebration Church has done this well. They obeyed the law and all health regulations but are challenging the reduction of attendees from 30% capacity to just ten people. Although a partial ruling was not favourable to the church, the court has not yet finished dealing with the Charter issues.

Indicators favouring civil disobedience

Virtually all defenders of civil disobedience (who see it as a basic right, even a duty) stress that a citizen should take this step only after all conventional channels for redress have been exhausted, because civil disobedience has potentially serious consequences. The indicators favouring civil disobedience are:

  • Just like the indicators favouring a challenge:
    • You have obtained legal advice that your defense has reasonable grounds.
    • You can make a strong case for how the public will benefit from a win (to minimize people thinking the challenge is for selfish reasons that only benefit  churches).
  • You can disobey without using violence.
  • You are willing to accept the consequences.

There is a high likelihood of fines and possibly even jail time if you disobey the law, so know in advance what you are getting yourself and your team into. One church that is engaged in civil disobedience, Trinity Bible Chapel in Waterloo Region, ON, is now facing the possibility of the church and its elders being fined close to $11 million

Next Steps

Discussing with church leadership/congregation

A previous post had lots of suggestions for how to have discussions when there are divisions in the church. I highly recommend reviewing it before risking a debate that could further harden divisions within church leadership or the congregation.

If leaning towards civil disobedience

In a recent post, Ray Pennings, who we heard from above, provided some sober reflections on the risk of pushback from the government that civil disobedience can lead to. If you are going to use civil disobedience, he calls for it to be a respectful disobedience. Ray’s main point is that when we resort to civil disobedience we should be mindful that there is much more than the immediate issue at stake. 

And if you choose disobedience, there is a “must read” guide published by The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada: an excellent primer on civil disobedience that includes a discussion on when civil disobedience is justified. Study this and make good use of it if civil disobedience is your choice.

Final Questions to Ask

Three questions to ask before selecting a response option may help confirm that it is the right choice for your church: 

  1. What is the lasting legacy we want to leave with the secular public when this is all over? 
  2. Will this response damage Jesus Christ’s reputation and that of the church? 
  3. Will this decision help us fulfill the church’s mission?

Concluding Thought

Deciding between the response options can be a weighty and difficult choice, but the Lord has promised to give us wisdom when we ask it of him (James 1:5). We at CCCC have heard from many people with differing views on the issue, and we feel the struggles you are having. There is no single, clear answer; there are only arguments favouring one option or another and you will have to use group spiritual discernment and good judgement to make your decision.

Whatever your decision, the most important follow-up activity is to use your God-given creativity to find ways to be the church  while the restrictions are in effect. Fortunately, many churches have gone public with the exciting and fruitful new ministries they’ve created, and I will be sharing those in the next post.

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