By Elizabeth Prata
A few days ago, Pastor James Coates of GraceLife Church in Edmonton Canada, a province of Alberta, was jailed for refusal to comply with COVID-19 health orders because, in Coates’ view, it would have severely restricted his church from functioning in the way the Bible sets forth. This went against his conscience. He preached his sermon last Sunday, and the Royal Mounted Canadian Police (RCMP) asked Coates to turn himself in after the service was concluded. On Tuesday, Pastor Coates did. Here is a short summary of the situation with his church that began in earnest in December-
“Alberta Health Services [AHS] inspector Janine Hanrahan issued an order against GraceLife in December, ordering members of the church and staff wear masks on the property, maintain six feet distance and operate at 15% or less capacity. On January 21, the health department filed court documents to enforce the order through the court system. It specified AHS had the power to jail the minister if he did not comply. At the end of January, AHS issued another order demanding he close the church until it was brought into compliance. Royal Canadian Mounted Police visited Coates following church services twice in February, and told him he would be arrested.” (source). And then he was.
Lawyer James Kitchen of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms is representing Pastor Coates. Kitchen said that the pastor and his church are loyal to God and that they are committed to in-person worship gatherings, and secondly, “they believe they are lawfully exercising their Charter-protected freedoms and that the Government’s restrictions are not justifiable”. (source).
On February 17, Kitchen appeared in an interview with another local pastor, Jacob Reaume of Trinity Bible Chapel, who has been closely following the situation. Kitchen explained the legal process in Canada, what has happened with Coates, and what potentially will happen as various legal scenarios will unfold. It was helpful to understand the legal process, because it varies a bit from American processes, and there is different vocabulary.
In his interview, Reaume said to Attorney Kitchen that he and his church have been praying for Pastor Coates, and his family, but asked what else they could do to help. Kitchen chose his words carefully here, but eventually said, “More people need to stop self-censoring”, and to speak up (peacefully).
Kitchen said, “They’re scared to speak up. They’re scared of getting in trouble at work, they’re scared of losing their friends, they’re scared of what people are going to say, they’re scared of dirty looks, this is what I hear, they’re scared of other people. And unfortunately, the more influence people have, the more they’re scared to use it, to say “You know, this is wrong. Count me in, I disagree with this. This has to stop. People with their words and with peaceful actions need to say, stop, enough is enough. Democracy is governing by consent. This is the whole underlying philosophical purpose of elections, You choose who governs you. … It is time for people to say, ‘I am removing my consent to be policed and governed this way.'” (source).
He cautioned people not to rebel but instead to take some risks and speak up, to become vocal about one’s beliefs and concerns. He advised that it is time to consider peaceful ways to end the coming dystopian/communist/tyranny. “It’s not going to end,” Kitchen said. “Anyone who thinks otherwise is naive.” Reaume replied, saying, “I am really bothered by the silence of the churches.”
The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe. (Proverbs 29:25).
Canada is a nearby country that seems similar to the US, where I live. But they have their own culture and mores and traditions. One of those cultural attitudes is that Canadians are polite, almost to a fault. They are self-effacing, courteous, and quiet, some say timid. Rebellion, even polite rebellion, seems to be a way of life not familiar to many. Yet, no matter what country one lives in, whatever your national attitude, it is time for Christians to prepare to make a stand.
Here in the US, we are laboring under similar restrictions. Tip-toeing tyranny is creeping in to churches from governments who enjoy overreaching. Some state governments aren’t tip-toeing but smashing in with a hammer. Will you be ready to make a stand? To speak up? To endure financial loss if your job is gone as a consequence of speaking up? To withstand dirty looks, being marginalized, or the extreme, jailed? Or the worst extreme? Martyred? It is time to think on these things, American Christian friends and pastors. The Canadian Charter protects Canadians’ religious freedom. Yet we see those freedoms being eaten away in chunks, crumbling away as if it was a CGI earthquake movie. Here in America it can happen too, and is happening.
I’m not especially saying ‘fight for your rights’. Though Paul asserted his rights as a Roman Citizen, and part of James Coates’ legal response was also to remind the court of the Charter protected religious freedom. However, I am mostly saying that it is time to sort out in your mind what you will say and do when confronted with government infringement on your conscience. Formulate and harden into a settled conviction what you believe, and why, and at what point you will not allow the line to be crossed. Pray for your pastor, who is now more than ever, a soldier on the front lines.
The Lord in His kindness gave us helps for times like these: a willing ear to hear prayer, the Spirit to strengthen us, and armor:
“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might. Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand firm therefore, HAVING GIRDED YOUR LOINS WITH TRUTH, and HAVING PUT ON THE BREASTPLATE OF RIGHTEOUSNESS, and having shod YOUR FEET WITH THE PREPARATION OF THE GOSPEL OF PEACE; in addition to all, taking up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. And take THE HELMET OF SALVATION, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:10-17).
Mike Hovlund, who I’d mentioned in a previous essay on this subject as having co-pastored with Pastor Coates until he planed another church and began pastoring there, published this thread on Twitter. I agree with it. I’ve seen such comments, and from self-professed Christians no less to my utter shock and dismay.
Mike Hovland, @MikeHovland
I want to address something that has been on my heart this past week as I’ve seen many of the responses to the posts about James Coates’ imprisonment. (Long thread) Early on in this pandemic I saw a tweet on this website that went something like this . . . “I wonder if the church of 2020 has an ecclesiology robust enough to justify its own existence.”
From what I have seen many do not have a biblical understanding of the church and its importance. Professing Christians are saying things like,
“GraceLife does have religious freedom they just have to follow the health guidelines like everyone else,” or “Our church live-streamed services this year and we are still saved, what’s the big deal?” I’m sure you’ve seen similar comments and many like them.
Let me share my perspective on this whole thing. I think it would be very close to what James Coates and GraceLife would say, but this is my own. The Christian’s ultimate purpose is to glorify God. This is actually the purpose for which all men were created.
The Christian however, is one who has come to see that God is worthy of our lives and worship. The purpose of my life is to honor God and live in such a way that all men might see how great, good, and awesome he is. Although I once lived for myself and my own desires,
I have been transformed through Jesus Christ and reconciled to God. This salvation opens my eyes to the glory (goodness and greatness) of God such that I recognize him as worthy of my life. The Christian wants to live for Jesus’ sake even at the cost of his or her own life.
Jesus gave his life to pay the penalty for my sin and he is worthy of my life—and your life. The greatest privilege of the believer’s life is to be allowed to live for Jesus Christ.
Now, let’s tie this understanding of the Christian mindset to the church.
What the Lord Jesus Christ is doing in this age is saving people and adding them to his church. Christ said he would build his church (Matt 16:18). The word church means gathering. The local church is the gathering together of believers who desire to live their lives as . . .
an act of worship to Christ. The gathering consists of things like worship (singing), the reading of Scripture, prayer, listening to the preaching of God’s word, the Lord’s Supper, baptism, and fellowship. God uses the church and its gathering to make the believer more like
Jesus. We become God’s instruments for spiritual growth in one another’s lives. The more we are like Christ, the more we honor God with our lives. Fellowship is an essential element in the life of a Christian. We cannot do this by live-streaming a service.
Christian worship requires two-way, close, interaction in one another’s lives.
Sadly, many professing Christians are missing this perspective or have never even had this kind of fellowship in their lives. 15% of the gathering is not the gathering. In Alberta right now that
is all the government allows. The government also requires that the church leave immediately after the “service” and that they stay separated 6 feet from each other with masks on. This does not allow true fellowship which our worship requires.
So, what do we do as Christians when the government is restricting some important aspects of our worship? The historic Christian position is that the government has no authority to tell the church how we can worship. Whenever the government forbids what God has required,
our response is to obey God and submit to whatever the government opposes on us, even death. This is what James Coates and other godly pastors are doing right now. We have decided that we must continue to serve one another and worship together, especially in these dark days.
If the world hates us because of this, we are not surprised. If they throw us in jail, we will accept it. We may say, this is unjust, but we will submit to it. We believe Christ is worthy of much more than this.
We hope that our actions will show the world how great our Savior truly is. But if you do not, know that this is how many of us feel about what we must do right now.