COVID, Church Services and the Good News of Jesus

A pastor of a church just outside of Edmonton Alberta has been arrested and charged with violating the COVID-19 Provincial Health Orders that among other things limit the size of indoor gatherings to 15% of the maximum fire code capacity.

Health officials and RCMP had met with the pastor on several occasions in an attempt to inform and educate in hopes that the Pastor would curtail his Sunday services attendance.

After repeated warnings and fines, and another capacity church service the pastor was arrested and charged with a breach of Health guidelines. He was eligible for bail on the condition that he agree to refrain from holding Sunday Service that exceeds 15% of maximum occupancy. The pastor declined the conditions and was held in custody.

  • The pastor was refused bail because he chose not to agree to adhere to the 15% capacity limit.
  • The pastor and his church service were respected in all aspects of dealings by the authorities.
  • Services need not be cancelled but attendance is to be limited to 15% fire code occupancy.

Pastor and his allies assert that the health guidelines are an infringement on Charter Rights of Freedom specifically association and religion. Our Charter Rights and Freedoms do not exist in a bubble. For example human rights / the welfare of all citizens are weighed against these kinds of freedoms including freedom of religion. For instance, a capacity church service, with few masks is a significant risk for the spread of the COVID-19 virus which is a risk to the health of the wider community.

It could be argued that if the people in attendance acknowledged and accepted this risk - no harm, no foul.

However, the people who gather for Sunday service leave the church and go about their lives in and among other people, like their neighbours. There is an increased risk that church members could be spreading the virus to the wider community. This means potentially more sick people, more dying people, more grieving people and more load on the healthcare system. Freedom of Religion needs to be held within the larger context of the well-being of the wider community.

Our Religious Freedom, conviction of faith must not create a risk of harm for those outside of our faith community.

This is why the 15% capacity is put in place. To help protect the public at large from contracting and reducing the risk of further spread of a virus that is deadly to so many. Sometimes, some freedoms of one group are temporarily curtailed for the wellbeing of the wider community.

Some supporters of this pastor say he is standing up for Jesus and the Church, and as a result, he is being persecuted. A closer look might demonstrate that is not the case.

We are NOT commanded to go to Church. We are called to be the Church.
Apostle Paul encourages people to keep gathering together but could not have imagined he would become the new Moses (law-giver), nor would he have been thinking about churches of 100's or 1000+ in a single enclosed building. Further, I'm not sure that Paul would consider doing so during a deadly pandemic, a Christlike response.

It is unlikely that we can seriously consider Paul's words in Hebrews 10:25 to be a command, but if so, by that logic, shouldn't we consider with the same authority when Paul also encourages that "we submit ourselves to the authorities...' (Romans 13:1-2)?

Jesus never spoke about defending his rights.
In fact, Jesus had plenty of opportunities to lead a violent revolt against the Romans but resisted doing so. Even on the cross, Jesus' response was not a vengeance spewed appeal to his "God rights," but a repeated petition of "Father forgive them. They don't know what they are doing."

Jesus did have a lot to say about loving our neighbours, laying down our lives (comforts, privileges) for others. To be first, we are to be last, to serve others.

Surely Jesus' words and actions have greater weight than Paul's?

The actions of this pastor/church and a handful of other Alberta Churches are not standing up for the Gospel, rather for a selfish, adolescent kind of faith. As Jesus said to his disciples in one of their less grace-filled moments "You do not know of what spirit you are." The Jesus way is to love (verb) our neighbours. We do this by laying down our selfish desires (even our most pious ones) and privilege for the good of our neighbour and enemy alike. This is the Gospel of Jesus.

Pro-Life? Oops... hypocrisy is showing. Some beat their chest and lament for the unborn but evidently have no regard for the lives of those at real risk from the virus. All one has to do is choose to limit one's own freedoms and privilege for love's sake or, if you like, for the health and the well-being of others during a global health crisis. Surely, Pro-Life means all lives matter.

The church is NOT being persecuted, and the pastor is not some martyr - Spare me the drama and the passing of the collection plate. Worship services are free to be held within the confines of public health orders. The issue isn't about the Christian faith. It is about a pastor/church's reckless, unChristlike and illegal behaviour.

To equate this reckless and unChristlike behaviour with martyrs from history is to literally disgrace and minimize the legacy of the many truly faithful who have suffered (and are presently suffering) genuine persecution for the cause of Christ.

This is no mighty act of faith rather a terrible witness to the world. A few weeks back, I was speaking with a person in my community. They were asking about a certain church group and how it was that they could brag about loving people while at the same time ignoring the health guidelines that protect the people they claim to love. I had no explanation for them.

I get it. It is tough right now and has been for quite a while. I get it that our Church gatherings are a genuinely important part of our lives, our faith, and we miss them during this strange season of COVID-19. I know virtual gathering is not ideal. I understand church budgets/finances are being hit hard during this time. I get it; many folks are genuinely lonely and experiencing anxiety over the necessary changes to our routine. I get it because I am experiencing all this too.

Saints, be encouraged. This is a genuine opportunity to practise loving our neighbour by laying down our privilege and our perceived rights as an act of Christlike love. The vaccine continues to be distributed, and there is a time coming soon when we can return to our buildings and worship together once again. In the meantime, let us be encouraged afresh that God doesn't abide in a building but in our hearts - that God is as intimate as each breath because of the way Jesus holds us.

Let us run this race well. Let us love well. This is the Good News of Jesus.

Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash

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