The intent of this document is to summarize the most biblical response to the many edicts, regulations, restrictions, and guidelines set forth by the government of Ontario under the COVID pandemic within the Southwest Public Health Unit and is intended as a guideline for the people attending Redemption Bible Chapel St Thomas.
As stated by other pastors and theologians, COVID has presented us with a very complex situation. Sadly, the common rationale is to reduce our conclusion to one of two polarizing positions, either: obey the government or fully open churches.
But it is our duty to apply due diligence to support our argument with the clearest biblical response possible. After all, the apostle Peter reminds us that the Lord has granted to us all things pertaining to life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). The Bible lacks no shortage in addressing how believers ought to respond in difficult circumstances pertaining to the governing authorities over them.
Regarding the matter of the recent lockdowns over the past twelve months including our current situation of the stay-at-home order and limiting church gatherings to 10 people, how should we as a church respond? Do we have just cause for civil disobedience under the stay-at-home order from the Premiere of Ontario? In an attempt to find the answer, we will look at the biblical passages that most clearly speak to this matter.
We believe in the importance and necessity of the church gathered weekly. To neglect the fellowship of the body results in robbing both the church body as well as the neglecting believer of the saints of spiritual blessing. Paul helps us understand in 1 Corinthians 12:7 that to each one is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. One notable passage of Scripture that is used to justify civil disobedience during the present stay at home order is Hebrews 10:23-25… “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
Many believers seem to suggest this passage to be one of, if not the primary passage that justifies civil disobedience in our current circumstance. We appreciate people holding Scripture above the laws of the land but does this passage teach or command the church to gather weekly on Sunday and thereby justify civil disobedience? Or stronger yet, is this passage teaching that it is a sin for the body to not meet every Sunday? Not exactly. There is no imperative (command) stated in the original language. It is not a command but rather a strong appeal urging believers not to neglect meeting together as some were in the habit of doing. It certainly stresses the importance of the gathering of the saints. Furthermore, it would be right to say that the continual gathering of the saints is strongly stated. But can we use this passage to justify breaking the lockdown mandate in effect in Ontario at the moment? That would be beyond the scope of this passage and to read into this text what is not actually there. Do we believe that believers should be regularly attending services as the church has done through the ages? Yes. Do we believe there is a danger to the individual believer in neglecting to meet with the church body? Yes. Is this passage a command as such that if the church does not meet for a period of time due to unusual circumstances that it is sinning? No. It certainly stresses the urgency and importance of meeting together, but it is not the proof text which some would suggest in justifying civil disobedience. Therefore, this passage should not be used as a means to justify civil disobedience in our present situation. It is, however, a strong appeal to those who have a lackadaisical attitude regarding the importance and purpose of the gathering of the saints.
One of the phrases we’ve heard much of in this season is that we must obey God rather than men. We wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment. However, wisdom dictates that we look to the Word of God and the context from which this phrase is borrowed and see if it meets the criteria in which it was used within Scripture. The phrase is borrowed from Acts 5:29. Looking at the greater context of this passage we find the setting quite different from our current setting. This original situation was uniquely aimed at the apostles who were healing people and going forth preaching the gospel of Christ. Verses 28 and 29 make clear the reason Peter uttered that now popular phrase.
Acts 5:27-29 “…And the high priest questioned them, 28 saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” 29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.”
When we compare the circumstances of this passage to our present setting, we quickly see that they are not the same. The apostles were singled out from the rest of society. We are not singled out from society. The present lockdown mandate is levied against all of society whether it be restaurants, malls, gyms, schools, or churches. The apostles were charged to stop preaching in the name of Jesus. We are free to preach in the name of Jesus. Our gatherings are limited, whether at 30%, 15% or 10 people, but we have not been charged to stop preaching in the name of Jesus. The possibility for this to change certainly exists, however, at present, Christianity is not being singled out from the rest of society. Here in Ontario, we have been treated the same as other organizations that have no religious affiliation of any kind. If anything, we would have to acknowledge that at times churches in Ontario have been granted gathering liberties which other organizations have not.
There is definitely a time when civil disobedience for the sake of the gospel is appropriate. We’re not convinced this is the right time just yet. We still have the freedom and liberty to preach Christ and him crucified whether it’s to 10 people in person or a church full of people, or online. By this we are certainly not downplaying the importance of the church meeting together. We are simply making the point that we are not under persecution like the apostles, and that any limitations we do face are not directed at the church alone, but to the community as a whole. Therefore, at this time, we do not believe that civil disobedience within the context of this passage is justified. We have not been commanded to stop preaching Christ and Him crucified as the apostles were. Nor have we been commanded to stop meeting because we preach Christ. There seems to be some ground to cover before churches could start claiming persecution for the sake of the gospel.
There are several passages of Scripture which speak to the Christian’s response to governing authorities.
Romans 13:1–7 “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. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 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, 4 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. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 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.”
This passage leaves little to the imagination as to how a Christian should respond to the governing authorities. It urges believers to be submissive to the governing authorities. This passage is explicit in stating that to resist the government is to resist what God has appointed. This should give us pause before we give ourselves to civil disobedience. The argument could and has been made that the governing authorities are God’s servant for our good. They are not to be a terror to good conduct, but to bad and exist as God’s avenger to carry out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. So then, when the authorities themselves deviate from God’s intended purpose, then we no longer need to submit to their authority on that matter, thus justifying civil disobedience. This argument has validity to it but should be considered with a great deal of prayer and wisdom. Furthermore, to say that there is never a time for civil obedience is naive to say the least. But when the government fails to meet the standard as described in Romans chapter thirteen, does it warrant civil disobedience? Perhaps. What about our government’s-imposed actions because of COVID? Does it justify civil disobedience? We would do well to examine the specific context of the exhortation in 1 Peter 2:13–15…
“Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.”
We see clearly here that the believers’ submission is to be to every level of government. In the following verses (18-19) Peter writes to servants to be subject to their masters with all fear, not only to the good but also to the harsh. It would seem somewhat incongruent if servants are called to be submissive to their harsh masters, but not to a harsh or overreaching government. We should also remember that this letter was written somewhere just before, during or just after Rome was burnt to the ground and Nero laid the blame on Christians resulting in devastating persecution upon Christians. When we view this passage in light of its context, we’re not quite convinced that our current climate, with the strongly imposed restrictions of our government, justifies civil disobedience. We recognize that other churches have come to a different conclusion, but the leaders of each church must determine from the Scriptures what they believe to be the most biblically accurate response to the COVID restrictions implemented in Ontario.
So, what then, does it look like to obey God in this COVID situation? What is the most biblical response we are to implement? This answer is threefold.
1 Peter 2:21-23 “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”
Jesus left us an example. Jesus is our example. When we look to Jesus and see how he was wrongfully treated, wrongfully arrested, and wrongfully suffered, he left this as an example for us to follow in his steps. Even when mistreated, he committed no sin, no words of bitterness or deceit were uttered by him in spite of his experience. He didn’t repay evil for evil; he didn’t give himself to a verbal battle with his detractors when he suffered, and he never threatened those who mistreated him. He completely entrusted himself to Him who judges justly. In this season, our conduct, our speech, and all we do should reflect the humility of Christ. We should be known for our submission even in COVID implemented mandates.
It’s easy to spend our time contemplating and analyzing every move our government has made in the past 14 months and continues to make. It’s becoming increasingly easier to criticize those decisions and harder to submit to the mandates put in place when the information from different experts and voices seem to contradict each other. But above all it’s easy to be so distracted by what is happening and to be so focused upon these things on a daily basis that we forget that we have been called to pray. Paul, writing to the Thessalonian church which seemed to face more than its share of suffering and persecution, exhorted them, in the midst of their trials, to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17). To the church of Ephesus, plagued with false teachers Paul wrote to young Timothy urging them to pray.
1 Tim 2:1-4 “…first of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. 3 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Saviour, 4 who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
Lest we forget, we must remain vigilant in prayer. It’s easy to become distracted as we focus on the latest announcement from the Premier’s office, but we must remember to pray for our political leadership. “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will” (Prov 21:1). Even above having our voices heard by our MP, MPP or Premiere, having our voices heard by God our Father in prayer is still more powerful. Let us not be negligent in praying for our country’s leadership in one of the most polarizing times in our country’s history. May it be written in the years to come that God’s people gave themselves to prayer in the time of the COVID pandemic and witnessed the power of God at work in moving the heart of the Premiere and Prime Minister.
We have the legal right to appeal to the governing authorities who implement laws upon the people of the land. Each citizen has the right to reach out and have their voice heard. Any person at any time can reach out to share their concern and have their voice heard. Contact information is readily available online allowing us to do so. But let us be mindful of our conduct. As Paul exhorted Timothy that our conduct, be “godly and dignified in every way” 1 Tim 2:2.
As we look for the most biblical response, we would conclude from the passages addressed in this document that the justification for civil disobedience in the circumstances we presently find ourselves don’t yet fully meet the criteria. Therefore, as trying, and difficult as the imposed restrictions are, we ought to obey our governments’ stay at home orders and restrictions placed upon our churches at this time. We do not advocate blind obedience, but godly obedience nonetheless as we continue to gauge our ongoing circumstances through the lens of the Word of God.
May we lean into the grace of God in this season. You are loved.