Governments have reacted, some say overreacted, to a declared pandemic by moving beyond giving advice for the good of our health to legislating behavioural constraints. Those restrictions have come to church, generating contradictory responses.

Wash your hands, wear a mask, and social distancing are good advice. Most of us have heard ‘wash your hands’ since childhood. A friend who taught in Japan commented many there wear a mask in public at the first sign of illness, to protect others from getting what they’ve got. Most of us have kept our distance from someone who had noticeable signs of illness.

Wash your hands, wear a mask, and social distancing are advice, until they’re compulsory.

Resistance arose swiftly to standardized medically-informed action taken by governments on the political left and political right from coast to coast to coast.

The summer of 2020 featured public demonstrations that laid waste COVID rules. Subsequent COVID fatigue, a.k.a. the pandemic wall, primed more Canadians for civil disobedience when governments again moved from official advice to enforced constraint.

Protesters gathered outside city halls and in front of legislatures to oppose  COVID constrictions.

Divisive tensions experienced in culture have also shown up in church.

Several organizers of public protests expressed that their Christian faith compelled their action. Most, in turn, attend churches that are disputing government limitations on religious gatherings.

A year ago, the vast majority of pastors shifted to accommodate government orders, employing internet conduits and reduced attendance church assembly with social distancing, masks, and hand sanitizer. A small number insisted on gathering without observing stipulated parameters, and consider love for neighbour extends to demonstrably championing neighbours’ economic and business interests. Community-minded elements in both groups continued ministries such as food banks, small group AA gatherings, cold weather emergency shelters, etc.

How can there be such incongruity within the Body of Christ, people who read a common Book and embrace a shared desire to follow Jesus and love our neighbours?

Two key ingredients distinguish conformers from dissenters: differing interpretations of constitutionally guaranteed religious freedom; and, differing interpretations of Scripture. Constitution first.

A long history of religious freedom is summarily stated in section 2 of the Canadian Charter or Rights and Freedoms (the Charter).

2. Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:

(a) freedom of conscience and religion

Section 1, however, clarifies that freedom of religion is not absolute.

1. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.

Dissenters dispute that the medically recommended and politically sanctioned COVID-pandemic policies are demonstrably justified. Legal counsel for this group note the Charter also guarantees freedom of assembly and freedom of expression; exercised in places of worship as well as in public spaces outside city halls and legislatures.

Decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada outline principles that merit consideration.

First, it’s irrelevant to the law that dissenters may be in the minority in their understanding of Scripture. The Court’s decision in Amselem (2004) concluded that religious freedom includes practices connected with sincerely held religious beliefs, regardless of whether those beliefs align with expert theological opinions or the majority in the religious community.

Second, government is required to be neutral, neither favouring nor hindering a particular religious belief, or non-belief as it were, through government policy (see Loyola High School (2015)). Dissenters contest whether current health regulations are neutral in regard to places of worship.

Third, in 2009 the Court decided the Government of Alberta was justified in requiring photographs on all drivers’ licenses because of national security concerns, even though the requirement violated the religious freedom of the Hutterian Brethren of Wilson Colony, Christians who believe being photographed violates the second commandment against making images or likenesses of anything in Heaven or on earth (Exodus 20:4). We’re in a declared emergency.

Now, the Bible. Accepted in both camps as the Word of God, there is disagreement about analysis and application.

A starting-point verse for divergence is Hebrews 10:25. Hebrews 10:23-25 in the Amplified Version reads:

23 Let us seize and hold tightly the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is reliable and trustworthy and faithful [to His word]; 24 and let us consider [thoughtfully] how we may encourage one another to love and to do good deeds, 25 not forsaking our meeting together [as believers for worship and instruction], as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more [faithfully] as you see the day [of Christ’s return] approaching.

A minority interpret verse 25 to command consistent face-to-face meeting of Christians, extending that application to Sunday church services unencumbered by COVID constraints. The majority consider the passage a plea to encourage those trying to live as stand-alone Christians to accept the accountability that comes with fellowship and discipleship.

Other key Scripture passages are found in the writings of Paul (Romans 13:1-7 and Titus 3:1-2) and Peter (1 Peter 2:13-17). Written in the setting of the first-century Roman Empire, within decades of Jesus’ crucifixion, most accept the instruction in Paul’s and Peter’s words in these passages to require submission by Christians to government authority. Paul wrote in Philippians that Jesus submitted, looking to the interests of others even unto his own death (Philippians 2:4-8).

The minority soften the submit-to-government directive, emphasizing verses in Romans 13 that describe the role of government as to do good. A contingent insist that government must submit to God. In Romans 13, Paul also writes that government is not a source of fear for people of good behaviour. The dissenters consider current government orders an example of government not doing good, not submitting to God, and punishing what they consider to be their good behaviour.

The minority also appeal to Biblically chronicled situations of civil disobedience. Consider two from the Old Testament, and a New Testament incident involving the same Peter who wrote “submit yourselves to [the authority of] every human institution for the sake of the Lord [to honor His name], whether it is to a king as one in a position of power, or to governors” (1 Peter 2:13-14 Amplified).

Two Old Testament examples are found in the Book of Daniel.

King Nebuchadnezzar commanded all to worship a statue of his image. The penalty for disobedience was to be thrown into a cremation-hot fiery furnace. Three Jewish men refused to comply. On sentencing they declared, “Our God whom we serve is able to rescue us from the furnace of blazing fire… But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up!” (Daniel 3:17-18). They were prepared to accept the consequences of their religious obedience and their civil disobedience.

Health orders do not command worship of any god or person.

We read in Daniel 6 that Nebuchadnezzar’s successor, King Darius, issued a loyalty decree that no petition was to be made to any god or man except himself for 30 days. Daniel prayed to God three times each day before the edict, and continued to do so during the 30 days. Daniel knew this could mean being imprisoned overnight in a den of lions. He was.

There has been no prohibition on prayer, private or public.

A frequently cited New Testament example is the arrest of Peter, jailed for preaching the Gospel in the name of Jesus. Miraculously set free in the night, then arrested again the next day, in his defence Peter said, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). The authorities had him beaten and released. Peter knew the risk of preaching in the forbidden name.

Governments have not decreed that Christians stop sharing the Gospel, or the name of Jesus.

A small number of religious gatherings have contributed to COVID spread in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Newfoundland. Let us not mistake regulation or prosecution for persecution. Let petitions continue to governments, and to God.

Fines issued for public health order violations and the imprisonment of a dissident Alberta pastor are before the courts, of law and public opinion. It is conceivable these cases will influence future understanding of religious freedom in Canada. For all our sakes, those Christians need the best legal representation available.

Christians who have submitted to government requirements, and petitioned for change rather than disobey, will have a different influence, likely less visible to the culture at large.

Christians petitioning God may open prison doors, and possibly change government policies without uttering a word in public.

The question of whether pandemic policies have gone too far will be settled in the courts, and at the ballot box.

The question of how our neighbours perceive the church’s response will be determined in a different way. “We are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making His appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5:20).