Tolerance is not enough anymore. Now, we must affirm someone else’s position and identity or be guilty of transgressing a social law code. “You cannot be silent and be affirming,” writes AnyYelsi Veleasco-Sanchez—she even associates silence with “cowardice.” In the past, such statements generally came from the politically left.
Surprisingly, however, Christians have begun to make similar arguments. They criticize others for their lack of perceived support of their opinion. One pastor even wrote on the sin of silence. Even in Christian circles now, silence is no longer tolerable—only public and vocal acts of support are.
In both cases, the form of argument is similar. Silence is betrayal. Only a vocal and public affirmation of someone’s opinion and cause can prove that we are allies. The result is schism. The “pure” group cuts itself off from the rest.
I find this form of argument profoundly unhelpful for three reasons.
First, it hurts the body of Christ
Over the years, Christians have had their share of radicals. They tend to follow a similar pattern. A leader takes a radical stand and claims purity. He and his group then splinter off.
For example, The North African Donatists maintained a schism, claiming they were the most pure church for more than 300 years. And in doing so, they weakened immeasurably the witness of the Church in North Africa. When Islam rolled over the Sahara, they overwhelmed both them and their ecclesial opponents completely.
Certain radicals in the Reformation like Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt caused all sorts of mayhem. In doing so, they hardened Martin Luther against dissent in the German Reformation, and thus prepared the way for Luther to reject Huldreich Zwingli as another of the same ilk, though he was not. Such radicalism might have the appearance of boldness for Christ, but its fruit speaks otherwise.
I see a similar pattern forming in our day. We have created a new honour and shame hierarchy. We feel that we need to show our strength by taking the most extreme positions. We think it signals dominance. Perhaps so. But it often does not signal kindness. Kindness is still a fruit of the Spirit. So is love and patience (1 Cor 13:4). So is not insisting on our own way (1 Cor 13:5).
Instead, we shame others into submission. We bind free men. We call their silence sin. And so we create a system of honour and shame whereby the top-dog gets acclaim for being the most zealous. The rest get kowtowed into submission. It forms a system of allyship and loyalty which by practice conflicts with the Gospel (Gal 3:28).
All of this hurts the body of Christ.
Second, it gainsays our freedom in Christ
When someone demands public affirmation of their opinion or preference, they bind the conscience of a Christian in ways that gainsay Christian freedom. In Christ, we are free from the yoke of slavery, from the yoke of human rules. We may choose to submit to someone’s preference for the sake of love. But we are not bound to it.
For this reason, calling silence a sin or requiring others to support a cause as we do only creates a burden for Christians who are free. As Martin Luther wrote: “Now do not make a ‘must’ out of what is ‘free,’ as you have done, so that you may not be called to account for those who were led astray by your loveless exercise of liberty” (First Sermon, March 9 1522).
We should not make a can into a must. And I would add that by doing so, we may make a Christian feel shame for not doing what Scripture does not require. In some cases, silence may signify cowardice. At other times, it may simply mean that people don’t feel compelled to signal their virtue loudly and publicly. Maybe they prefer to privately express their concerns to their elected representatives, or do not feel the need to publicize every moment they do something courageous.
Whether slave or free, every Christian has the same Christian freedom that I do. Because of this freedom, I can say that Churches who openly disobey regulations if done according to conscience can freely do so. I do not agree. But must I separate from them? Can they not be my ally even so?
I hope so. I disagree with many Christians. These disagreements may mean we don’t become fast friends. But our unity is in Christ. Our freedom is in Christ. I grant this because Scripture tells me to do so.
Will others grant me the same Christian freedom? Will they give me the freedom to disagree? Or is my conscience bound to someone else’s opinion or preference?
I don’t think so. My conscience is bound to the Word of God, and I maintain with Paul: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:12). I feel no need to submit, and neither should you.
Third, it requires too much of us
What level of support makes one an ally? What level of support makes one “silent” or a non-supporter? What venue must one lodge his or her support? Who can accept it? The requirement for obedience here creates an ambiguous morality in which our consciences are relieved or struck down by the opinions of human beings.
Lest I be misunderstood, let’s try to explain what I mean. And I hope you forgive me for using my own experience as an example. But it seems to make the point. In recent times, Christians have hotly discussed and debated the arrest of Pastor James Coates in Alberta (Feb 16).
Even so, most Christians should be able to agree that the arrest of Pastor Coates is an unjust application of law. His ordeal pits public health against religious freedom. More than that, Pastor Coates is in jail because of his religious convictions on the nature of the church.
I said similar things in a recent article. There, I linked to an appeal to Premier Kenney on behalf of Pastor Coates to the premier asking for Pastor Coates’s release (written by a TGC Canada council member). I also provided concrete ways to pray. According to my conscience, I supported Pastor Coates.
Despite that, some criticized the article and pastors in the Gospel Coalition. The article, the letter to the premier, and the fact that TGC pastors called a prayer meeting because of the arrest of Pastor Coates did not signal enough support. To be an ally requires something more. It seems to require that Christians loudly signal their support through social media and other public venues.
That requirement adds a particular burden to Christians that does not comport with Christian freedom. Most of us can barely keep up with housework, our jobs, our families, and our churches. Can we really be expected to speak in a sufficiently public way to satisfy our critics?
Sometimes silence just means we are busy taking care of our family, church, or some other good thing. A pastor shepherds his flock; he may not have the bandwidth or even the calling to speak on every issue publicly. Can we really blame him? Pastoring is hard, especially in a pandemic.
We have become intolerant of disagreement. We cannot simply disagree and move on—something healthy and necessary. Now, we demand uniformity of opinion. Our unity then no longer centres on Christ alone but on public statements of loyalty.
We have made a can into a must. But Paul says:
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another. (Gal 5:13–15)
I find his Gospel of freedom compelling and his warning about devouring each other frightening. I hope we all do.
 I want to clarify here that I am not talking about being silent when we encounter abuse. I am talking about expecting others to act as we do—to have the same opinion, to make a “can” into a “must.”
Tom Reilly says
Although I strongly support the spirit of your paper, I disagree with the reason stated for Pastor Coates’ arrest. He was not arrested for his religious convictions on the nature of the church but for flouting the necessary public health regulations around Covid 19. Separation of Church and State need not be confrontational. When any pastor violates regulations that are intended to halt the spread of a killer disease he renders himself liable to prosecution. This event sadly ignores a greater threat to the church that is contained in Bill C6 and in an amendment to Bill C7, both of which are currently before Parliament.
Regarding his arrest, you are accurate because “yes” he was arrested for violating enforced public health orders. But that violation flowed from his religious conviction. So I think we can say both.
Tom Reilly says
Pastor Coates’ wisdom in choosing to plead rights is open to serious question. To have full attendance, unmasked gatherings he not only created a hot spot for infection but exposed others to the disease. He was not prohibited from preaching, teaching or giving pastoral care. A wiser and more responsible approach would have been to make use of the technology available to us for ministry. While not ideal, it has worked well for many churches. As previously stated real violation of rights lies ahead should Bill C6 become law. Pastors, parents, teachers, medical workers and others face heavy fines and/or imprisonment for its violation. The need of the hour is godly wisdom to navigate the deepening moral darkness.
Interestingly, Albertan churches have not been closed down. They can meet even now at 15% of fire-code capacity. So that might mean more like 3 or 4 services to serve everyone. So Pastor Coates would not need to use digital technology.
Tom Reilly says
Churches are strangely silent on Bill C6!
Thanks for the article. It offered some new and helpful insights for me, however I tend to agree with Tom Reilly. While it is true he was arrested for actions that flowed from his religious convictions, it was the police that did the arresting and it’s their motives that would typically drive the actual reason for the arrest. If I felt it was a sin to be late for church and was pulled over for speeding it would be true to say that my ticket flowed from my religious conviction, but it’s not accurate to say I was ticketed for my religious convictions. I was ticketed for speeding. To say Pastor Coates “is in jail because of his religious convictions” implies a level of persecution that I personally don’t believe exists. Simply put, Pastor Coates is in jail because he violated rules related to gathering sizes. There is no indication that the motive for his arrest was related to religion that I am aware of.
Fair enough. For my part, because he maintains that he must gather his whole church in one service, I see that as a religious conviction. Hence, I am OK with calling a religious conviction, but I do disagree with Pastor Coates’s ecclesiology and decisions here. I still think there is a valid way to support those with whom we disagree.
Yes. I agree with support and admire his courage while at the same time disagreeing with him as you do. I guess my point is that we need to be really careful with words and how we use them. Someone with just a cursory knowledge of the situation might read the sentence as posted and think that we were in a far worse situation in Canada than we are in. I believe he would just as likely have been arrested for gathering basket weavers as he was for a gathering of Christians.
Thanks for all the great articles a The Gospel Coalition. I’d never heard of you guys until December and now find that you are a great resource for me especially with regards to this topic.
Well, that didn’t age well did it?
I appreciate the balance here struck and in your TGC article. Its clear Pastor Coates is suffering for his Christian convictions but his ecclesiological convictions also seem idiomatic. In his February 14th sermon, “Directing Government to its Duty”, Pastor Coates argues that Christians can exercise civil disobedience not only in cases of conscience but as a check against a government who steps outside their God ordained role. Government’s role, according to Pastor Coates, is strictly limited to maintaining personal rights and does not include the preservation or protection of life. So when a government acts to restrict social or economic activity to prevent the spread of a virus, that government acts outside of God’s role for them and instead should let the virus bring harm to the extent God allows. Therefore, in addition to the usual circumstances for Christian civil disobedience (government commanding what God forbids and government forbiding what God commands), Pastor Coates creates a third category for Christians to act as a check again perceived government overreach.
The tough part seems to be balancing at least 3 issues:
1) My own personal convictions: Pastor Coates point that Christians have no obligation to obey the government unless they believe the government is acting in concert with their own understanding of personal rights seems a fringe belief, irresponsible, and ideological in its rigidity. I’ve already had non-Christian friends bring Pastor Coates up with me out of a mix of frustration with the risks posed to the community and curiosity for how representative his views are.
2) The legal environment for conscience protections: even though Pastor Coates’ beliefs on this issue aren’t my own, a Christian pastor is still in jail for his convictions. In principle, this doesn’t sit well with me.
3) How should the authorities have responded? Notices and fines were already given, what other remedies or tools does a provincial government have when faced with continued public health violations during a pandemic? It seems at the very least they have to take some action to stop the public health violation.
Thanks for a healthy contribution to discussion.
Dan Sudfeld says
I confess that I was someone who was disappointed with the TGC response on this. I originally thought it was “a day late and a dollar short.”
A Day late – It took a full four days between imprisonment and a response. There were all manner of responses, locally and from abroad, during that time, EXCEPT from the coalition that would include a church such as GraceLife and a pastor such as James Coates. Now, if that silence was due to the TGC director and council being busy with family and church that week, I was wrong to be disappointed.
A Dollar Short – I thought the article was well done insofar as it met its stated aim, which was to “clarify the facts.” But my disappointment came in one sentence where it went away from facts and felt constrained to say, “While I do not agree with Pastor Coates’s decision to contravene public health orders, he and his church need our prayers…” Why the first clause? That could easily have been left out.
Dr. Gregory Wolak says
Wyatt, seems to me like you may be trying to “justify” your silence by not propounding “opinions” as such but in proclaiming Biblical doctrine when called for – for standing firm in the face of unfettered and overreaching atheistic and amoral governmental tryranny that Christians are now experiencing. I guess that if I were you – I would feel guilty and ashamed also but stop trying to justify your silence by trying to convince more solid Christians to keep silent in the face of it when we are simply doing what “The Great Commission” commanded us to do.