In the news this morning (May 17) I read that Rev. Tim Stephens of Fairview Baptist Church, Calgary, had been arrested for leading his congregation in persistently violating public health orders regarding gathering restrictions, masking in public places, and physical distancing. Whereas Alberta Health Services had been attempting to work with the pastor in order to reach an acceptable accommodation, as the organizer of a public event he decided to go ahead with in-person services that ignored attendance limits and other basic measures, disregarding a court injunction. Hence law enforcement had no choice but to finally act.
What are we to make of these developments?
In a May 5 posting to his church website, Rev. Stephens makes the argument that this a case of government overstepping its authority, trampling on our Canadian rights to freedom of religion, and attempting to forbid something which has been commanded by God. Whereas Christians are called to submit to earthly authorities (Rom 13:1-7) in normal circumstances, they also must disobey when government either: forbids what God commands, or commands what God forbids. In the case of Sunday worship, Rev. Stephens sees the command to gather as absolute and invariable for whatever reason. As he says in an article from last June: “God is very particular on how he desires to be worshiped, we don’t have the liberty to change that. He has given us commands and we should obey them.” He concludes his recent argument with a call to his congregation: “These theological commitments make the decision about what to do with these latest restrictions clear—we gather as our Lord commanded.”
I must admit to being somewhat impressed by Rev. Stephens’ zeal and commitment to his principles. Part of me is happy for Rev. Stephens and his congregation to be so passionate in their Christian witness.
At risk of sounding a little like the snake in the garden of Eden, I’d like to pose a question. Did God really command us to gather no matter the cost or circumstance? Because that’s what the implication of all Rev. Stephens’ rhetoric seems to be. The church must gather! he declares, even as we see outbreaks of COVID-19, with all the suffering and death that brings, coming from church meetings. The church must gather! he asserts, even though we know that spending extended periods of time in confined spaces, singing, and touching one another dramatically raise the risks of spreading any illness. The church must gather! he proclaims, even when many in our congregations are at increased risk of serious illness and death from COVID because of their age. None of this seems to matter to Rev. Stephens or his congregation, only their perception of God’s absolute command and the fact that the government is warning against church gatherings at this time. But again I ask, did God really command us to gather when we jeopardize each other’s health and wellbeing by doing so? I don’t think so.
Of course gathering on the Lord’s Day is important—even a fundamental—practice of our faith! Of course regular participation in the Lord’s Supper nourishes us, spiritually and even physically! Of course singing together binds us as a community as nothing else can, and it has been a practice of Christians in worship from the very beginning! Of course regular gatherings are encouraged by the writers of the New Testament! But none of this supersedes Jesus’ command to love one another. Because if there is any command of God that is everywhere and always true, applicable in any and every situation, it is not that we gather on the Lord’s Day (as important and desirable as that is), it is that we love one another as Christ has loved us.
Throughout the gospels we see Jesus confronting an inflexible religiosity that puts rules and principles before human needs for connection and embrace. Whenever that happened Jesus was quick to challenge the religious rules and rule-makers. He healed people on the Sabbath, against the objections of the religious leaders who said that God had commanded no work to be done on that day. He restored people to community who had been judged unclean by the commands of God in Leviticus. He challenged the rules of sacrifice that had been biblically laid down, but had come to exclude the poor from access to God. He “welcomed sinners and ate with them,” though that had been expressly forbidden by the traditions of the elders, received by the Pharisees as the commands of God.
The text from Hebrews that is so important to Rev. Stephens as God’s command (10:25 – “…not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some…”) is preceded by this: “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds…” In other words, we don’t just gather together because of some abstract whim or command of God, it is for the purpose of growing in love! For if we do not have love, as Paul writes, we are but “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” (1 Corinthians 13:1)
And I’m afraid that’s how much of this rhetoric sounds to me. While I’m grateful for Christians who are willing to risk much for the sake of their witness to the gospel, the cynical side of me asks how important going to church every Sunday really was for the people of Fairview Baptist before the pandemic. Or is this a case of an anti-authoritarian political ideology getting mixed up with religion? Suddenly now their politics becomes not just one more option in the public square, but a righteous cause. They portray this as a great persecution of their faith by godless authorities who “do not submit to God’s wisdom or law,” when in reality the imposition of temporary measures limiting public gatherings across the board is just a very-sensible precaution that every caring neighbour can take. Our premier is not the emperor Nero.
At Hope, in concert with Lutheran churches all over this province, we have elected to follow government guidance with regards to keeping each other safe in this time of pandemic; we have restricted our worship attendance (currently to online only), and followed all other safety protocols when gathering in limited ways over the past year. It has been hard, because we all long for the support and nurture and meaning we receive from the community gathered for worship. But we have made these sacrifices for the benefit of society as a whole, and for each other’s health and wellbeing. We have not acted out of abject fear for our own lives in the midst of pandemic; we have not acted out of cowardice before tyrannical authorities. Instead, the measures we have taken come from faithful obedience to the way of Christ. We have acted, and will continue to act, from wisdom, prudence, and love.
The way has been hard, and many times we have asked each other, “How long?” …but there is good news.
The first of it is that there have always been ways to worship, pray, and connect with God and each other that have not involved public Sunday gatherings! I don’t mean to diminish the importance of gathering, but I want to lift up all the other ways we can practice our faith (and have been practicing it!) while gathering restrictions are in place. The New Testament commands and encouragements are for Christians in worship to:
The second piece of good news for us at this time is that the end is in sight! As Albertans continue to respect public health orders, and as the vaccines become ever more widespread, it seems that the time is coming soon when we will be able to gather in person in our churches, to see, talk with, and hug each other again. While nothing about COVID has ever been written in stone, we can see that the third wave seems to have crested and we can have hope that restrictions will soon ease again. Meantime, let us continue to worship God in spirit and truth.
May the words of scripture be a final encouragement and exhortation to us:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2)
God’s peace be with you,