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70 | When do Christians cross the line on civil disobedience?

Daniel in the lion’s den by Briton Rivière (1890)/Wikipedia/Public Domain
70 | When do Christians cross the line on civil disobedience?

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Hi my name is Dean Smith and in this podcast I want to discuss the tensions in the Christian community over acts of civil disobedience. Are there times when believers should disobey governments?

Christians have different opinions on this and these were exposed in an incident that recently took place at a rural church in Alberta, Canada on Sunday, April 11, 2021.

Over the past several months, GraceLife Church has been defying the Alberta government’s COVID lock down order by exceeding the 15% limit put on church attendance.

This led to the church’s pastor, James Coates, being jailed for 35 days, even though the charges he faced only involved potential fines.

But that all changed when the RCMP asked Coates to voluntarily sign an undertaking that he would no longer attend services at the church. When he refused, the RCMP refused to let Coates go.

Coates’s lawyer with the Justice Center eventually negotiated Coates release on March 22 after getting the undertaking removed.

But as GraceLife continued holding services, including a packed out Easter service, things were about to take a dramatic change the following week, when the RCMP raided the church in the early morning on Wednesday, April 7, 2021, set up a two layered barricade around the church preventing people from attending services.

As news spread about the blockade that you would only expect to see under a communist regime, plans were made for a protest at the church the following Sunday.

Suspecting that something was in the works for Sunday, the RCMP sent several police cars to block the entrance to the church’s rural property.

When people showed up for the protest, they had to abandon their cars on the main road and march to the church. There are images of one group being led by a man carrying an eight-foot cross.

The protest crowd, estimated to be upwards of 400 people, was made up largely of believers from across Alberta. Some had driven several hours to be there.

Only a handful of members of GraceLife church were at the Sunday morning protest, because most were attending an underground service held at a secret location as the church continued holding services despite being locked out of its building.

Though GraceLife broadcast the service on YouTube, members of the congregation were blurred out, so health officials could not target them. Only the faces of Pastor Coates who delivered the sermon and the two worship leaders were not blurred out.

Meanwhile, as others gathered at GraceLife’s property to protest the barricade, they began to singing hymns and praying. Several in the crowd were exhorting people not to get violent.

But what happened next became a dividing line on the issue of civil disobedience.

Several began dismantling a small section of the fence surrounding the church building. They didn’t destroy the fencing they simply dismantled it and put it to the side.

In an article in the Edmonton Journal, Dylan Short described what happened next writing:

“Some of the attendees tore down sections of the fence as the RCMP rushed to stop them. As the fence was being taken down, some chanted ‘leave the fence’ and ‘Jesus would not take down the fence.’ Police later replaced the fence while some in attendance assisted.”

Yes, some felt they could take down the fence, while others believed this was going to far and were chanting “leave the fence” and “Jesus would not take down the fence.”

When the RCMP called in reinforcements to restore the fence, some of the protestors even helped police put it back up.

While, they were obviously fine protesting this infringement of people’s rights, some drew a line at dismantling a barrier set up by the RCMP.

So where do you fall on this?

There are several instances in the Bible of people practicing civil disobedience. Though their actions were clearly a violation of the law of that time, they were not violent.

When the Egyptian Pharaoh ordered the Israeli midwives to kill the male babies as they were being born, they disobeyed the government order and refused to do this.

Now most understood this was right, because murder is morally wrong, even if the government legalizes it.

In the book of Daniel, we see two more instances of civil disobedience of a slightly different nature.

When the Babylonian King ordered everyone to bow before a massive idol he had installed, three Jews, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, refused.

The three men did not believe they should be compelled to worship another god. The three were sentenced to death by burning, but were spared when an angel appeared in the midst of the furnace and saved them.

Daniel was caught in a similar situation when a law was passed that for 30 days no one was allowed to pray to any god other than the King of Babylon.

Now, Daniel could have easily obeyed this edict by not praying at all during the month-long ban. Instead, he prayed to Jehovah as he typically did each day. He was caught and sentenced to death by being torn apart by lions.

But again an angel was dispatched to protect Daniel from attack.

So, there are instances when God approves of civil disobedience confirmed by angels being dispatched to protect people when they broke human law.

But this needs to be balanced by two strong admonitions by the Apostle Paul and the Apostle Peter who exhort us to obey those in authority because they have been appointed by God.

Peter writes:

13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. (1 Peter 2:13-14)

The Roman emperor at this time was none other than Nero. He was one of Rome’s most ruthless emperors, who blamed Christians for Rome’s Great fire in 64 AD.

According to ancient Roman historians, he did this because many suspected Nero had deliberately set the fire, so Nero targeted the Christians in order to shift the blame on them.

Nero’s horrific persecution of Christian included dipping Christians in oil and setting them on fire and using them as torchers to light his gardens. Some even wondered if Peter was referring to this when he spoke of fiery trials in I Peter 4:12.

So, if Peter and Paul exhorted believers to obey human authority under Nero, how much more should we obey human authority in a modern democracy.

But I chose Peter’s admonition because of an interesting incident that took place in the book of Acts involving the apostle.

In Acts 5, the apostles were arrested because they had been preaching the gospel in the portico, a covered area beside the Jewish Temple. Hundreds were embracing Jesus as the Jewish Messiah as the Holy Spirit moved in power with miracles.

We are explicitly told that they, including Peter, were thrown into the city’s main Roman jail.

As they sat in prison, God dispatched an angel during the night who broke the apostle out of prison, and told them to return to preaching the gospel.

The apostles were then seized again the next day and dragged before the Jewish court and were ordered to stop preaching Jesus.

Since God had broken them out of jail, Peter understood that they were subject to a higher law and responded we must “obey God rather than men.”

And an angel broke Peter out of Roman jail a second time after King Herod had ordered him arrested in Acts 12.

So, how do we balance Peter’s two jailbreaks with his admonition to obey human authority?

I believe Peter’s statement is simply an admonition that Christians can’t disobey human authority on a whim or excuse that we are subject to a higher authority. We still need to pay our taxes, obey traffic lights and speed limits.

But there are times when God’s law is higher.

So how does a fence around a church fit into all of this?

Some believers felt they could tear it down, while others did not. And what about the church’s decision to hold a service at a secret location potentially violating the government’s lockdown order?

Certainly, these are a matter of conscience.

And, what about the suggestion by some of the protestors, that Jesus would not dismantle the fence.

Well, I can’t speak for Christ on this. I am not sure, but I do remember that time, when Christ charged through the temple overturning the money changer tables, releasing the doves and driving away the sacrificial animals.

I will finish with this.

The Justice Centre, a legal non-profit defending liberty and freedom in Canada is representing GraceLife church in its legal fight with the government. It is also defending Jame Coates who is slated to go to trial on May 3, 2021.

The Justice Centre is arguing that under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms that Canadians have the legal right to religion and assembly and the government cannot set aside these important freedoms on a whim. It must have a valid reason.

Justice Center lawyers have even asked several times for Alberta’s health authorities to provide the scientific and medical evidence that a lockdown is an effective way to handle the COVID. To this point the government has either been unwilling to provide the information or simply has none.

However, the Justice Centre just reported that the Judge overseeing the case granted the Alberta government’s request that it will not have to defend the constitutionality of Alberta’s lock down during Coates’ trial that he contravened the province’s Public Health Act. The constitutionality of the lockdown will be dealt with at a later trial.

According to recent stats, Alberta has a population of 4.4 million and just over 2,000 have sadly died of COVID. But this represents only .045% of the population and over half of them were over 80. Though this is heartbreaking for the families involved, does it warrant depriving healthy people of their fundamental rights and freedoms. Does government have the right to quarantinee the healthy?

My goal in this podcast is not say who is right or wrong or wrong on the barricade issue, but simply to suggest that the Bible does allow for non violent civil disobedience.

To what extent is a matter of conscience. But it may be an issue we need to resolve in our hearts, sooner than later.

READ: Protesters gather at GraceLife Church on first Sunday after closure AND Court Grants Alberta’s Request To Forbid Jailed Pastor From Challenging Health Order During Trial AND Court permits Government to avoid producing Dr. Hinshaw’s evidence on lockdowns at May 3 trial of Pastor James Coates

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