In Toronto, a Jewish school resists lockdowns on the basis of breaching charter freedoms. In Alberta, authorities shut down Whistle Stop Cafe. In that same Province, authorities also arrested a mayoral candidate in connection to (but not exclusively for) breaching health guidelines. In Manitoba, Maxime Bernier, the leader of the PPC party was arrested for breaching health guidelines. I am sure I could cite many such examples across Canada.
Churches too have not escaped heavy application of law. Three pastors in Alberta have been arrested. Evidently, Alberta Health thinks it’s wise and good to shut down businesses, arrest mayoral candidates, and pastors even at the cusp of reopening the entire Province—which will happen on July 1st. Other churches have received fines. Chuches, politicians, schools, and businesses all have likewise received heavy applications of law in Canada.
I dislike such heavy-handed application of law against Christians in Canada. As I have said more than once, I support religious freedom in Canada, and so if someone feels conscience-bound to act in a certain way, then I support their freedom to do so. I also dislike immensely the heavy handed application of law against any citizen or business in Canada.
But here we are.
Must I call all of this persecution? Must is the key word here. I think I may, but as of yet, I do not think that word applies. It may apply locally in Canada, and I simply do not have the context to see it. But broadly, I have yet to be persuaded that I must use the word persecution for what is happening here.
I am not here willing to enter into the casuistry necessary to disentangle every detail. So let me press into one reason why, not assuming it will cover all the arguments or details needed. Here it is: God reigns over the cosmos through creation and church, magistrate and ecclesial body. This single reign of God is one but distinguishable in its mode of operation.
In the first place, God appoints magistrates as the Bible teaches, but may be summarized by Romans 13:2–3: “For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God.” He even raises up the bad ones (Exod 9:16).
On the other hand, Jesus is the “great Shepherd of the sheep” (Heb 13:20) who authorizes undershepherds to rule in the church through his Word: “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you” (Heb 13:17).
So that’s the broad summary. Which means to obey God calls for obeying all of what God requires, in the way he requires, according to the Spirit and right reason. So I am duty bound to obey God in his one reign over the cosmos in creation and church according to the mode of reign he employs: magistrate and ecclesial body. Over both, God stands.
“The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord”
Is God not “the Judge of all the earth”? (Gen 18:25). He is. And so God administers his reign not through some esoteric system but through the means he has appointed. So the “Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia” (2 Chron 36:22). Is not the king of Persia, where Israel lies in exile, doing the will of God? Is not the king of Assyria the “ax” of the Lord (Isa 10:15)? Away then with such minimizing views of God’s single and majestic reign.
It’s not so amazing then that Proverbs 21:1 says: “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, Like the rivers of water; He turns it wherever He wishes.”
And so let us say when calamity or discomfort hits: “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). Or should we be found to resist his will?
“We ought to obey God rather than men.”
And yet Scripture knows rulers can be evil (Exod 9:16) and governments influenced by dark powers (e.g., Rev 13). So we must also come to grips with passages like Acts 5:29: “We ought to obey God rather than men.”
There are of course exceptions to our general mode of obedience to the magistrate since magistrates may forbid our conscience to worship as was the case with Daniel and his three friends. Daniel prayed with the window open. The three obeyed the king insofar as they were able. They came to the idol. They allowed their bodies to move at the king’s command at least to a point. But they would not bow.
They kept their conscience pure.
Beyond not bowing and beyond not closing the window, what else did they not do? That is an unasked but equally important question.
They did not spend their time criticizing and lombasting those who disagreed with them.
They did what they Lord would do: “when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Pet 2:23).
Or have we forgotten that the meek inherit the earth, even when persecuted or killed? They give the shirt of their back when asked (Matt 5:40), they walk the extra mile (Matt 5:41), and they do not strike the other cheek (Matt 5:39). They commit their souls to the Lord.
Maximos: Suffering without Condemning
Maximos the Confessor (AD 580–662) saw in the examples of Daniel and the three how to suffer for truth. Maximos who lost a hand and a tongue for his faith did not revile the emperor but stood innocently in the truth. At his trial (at least at one of his trials for which he was exiled), he cited the example of Daniel and the Three. His words ring true with a sense of spiritual maturity even as he was soon to be condemned for the truth of Christ’s nature:
“The three young men who did not adore the idol when all others adored it did not condemn anyone. They did not attend to what belonged to others but attended to this, that they not lapse from true worship. Likewise, Daniel, when thrown into the lion’s den, did not condemn anyone who did not pray to God in accordance with the decree of Darius, but attended to what was his own role, and he preferred to die and not offend God than to be afflicted by his conscience over the transgression of the laws of nature.
Thus it is with me as well; may God grant that I neither condemn anyone nor say that I am alone saved. But I prefer to die rather than to have on my conscience that I in any way at all have been deficient in what concerns faith in God.”
I note that Maximos both affirms the reality that he and others can and do suffer for what is right. A mayor, a politician, a business, a Christian—those convinced they act according to charter freedoms and/or a divine injunction to act in a certain way—may use Maximos’s words here.
On the other hand, if they use his words and the examples of Daniel and the three, then they would have to avoid attacking others who disagree with them. The ministry of suffering is not the ministry of condemnation. And that so often seems to be the case right now.
If doing right is right in and of itself, then why so fast to get everyone on your side? Why do what is right and let the judge of the earth decide? “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Pet 2:23). Should we not then put away our condemnation and entrust ourselves to the judge of all the earth?
This is especially true for independent congregations who have no ecclesial authority over other congregations. Why require others to do what you feel you must by conscience? Why condemn?
Not all have done so. At least some have.
So act according to conscience. I will support your freedom to do so! But support or at least tolerate my decision not to affirm you in every way. “Let each be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom 14:5). As we thread the needle of God’s single reign over the cosmos through the means of civil and ecclesial authority, we must use prudence or spiritual wisdom to come to sound conclusions. Often we will disagree. But as John Calvin advises, we should exercise charitable judgment.
We should have the mind of Christ. But until we all agree, Paul tells us: “and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you” (Phil 3:15). So let’s not be the Holy Spirit, and instead let God guide our conscience on such matters until the day the Spirit reveals it. Then, perhaps we will be much more thankful that we accepted one another as Christ accepted us (Rom 15:7) rather than starting controversies over matters of conscience.