So what if we have legal rights – aren’t we called to just submit to the government? (FT Pt. 3)
Part #3 of 4 in an adaptation of the ARPA Canada Fall Tour 2020, Defending our Christian Legacy of Liberty.
Our last post in this series considered what is meant by freedom, and the Bible’s long influence on the development of freedom. We’ll now look at how our Charter of Rights and Freedoms works, while maintaining a biblical posture of respect for civil authority.
When Charter Rights Are Being Unjustifiably Violated
The Charter of Rights and Freedoms was added to our constitution in 1982. It owes some – though certainly not all – of its language to the Christian legacy of limited state power. The preamble to the Charter states that: “Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the Supremacy of God and the Rule of Law.” This ‘Supremacy of God’ clause is supposed to be a reminder to our lawmakers that they are under the ultimate Lawgiver. But note as well the reference in this clause to the rule of law. That echoes the Belgic Confession, which in turn echoes Deuteronomy 16 and 17 – we are to be governed not by the whims of kings and tyrants, or bureaucrats for that matter, but by laws and statutes. And everyone is under the law, including the king, the prime minister, the premier, the police, the bylaw officer, and the Public Health Officer. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms is, in some ways, a product of Christianity’s influence on law in the West.
So, what are some things the Charter guarantees? In Canada, according to the Charter, everyone has the following fundamental freedoms listed in section 2:
- freedom of religion & conscience,
- freedom of expression,
- freedom of peaceful assembly, and
- freedom of association.
These freedoms should protect the ministry of the church, as described in the previous blog. These are not absolute rights; the civil government can restrict them in certain, limited circumstances. But, when the civil government imposes on Charter rights like freedom of peaceful assembly, the burden in law is on the civil government – NOT citizens – to demonstrate that the restrictions are justifiable in a free and democratic society.
But what good does this do us in light of everything we know about submission to the governing authorities? So what if we have legal rights – aren’t we called to just submit to the government?
Well, in order to make a proper application of the rule of submission, we have to understand how our civil authorities govern. How citizens interact with governing authorities looks different in Canada today (where the constitution is supreme even over judges and premiers) than in ancient Rome, for example.
We often talk about sphere sovereignty in relation to the big spheres of responsibility instituted by God: the family, the church, and the state (as well as self government). The state is not a single entity (thankfully). Within the modern constitutional state, there are three branches that hold each other in check: the judiciary, the executive, and the legislature. This separation within the civil government is described in our constitution as “the separation of powers.” No one man is lawmaker, police officer, judge, jury, and executioner. We divide power, and for good reason: power tends to corrupt fallen man.
And all of the civil government in Canada is limited by law, and under law, particularly the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Does the Charter govern you as a citizen? No, it doesn’t. It is the highest law in Canada, but it only limits the power of the civil government. So, judges, lawmakers, and police officers, together with the Charter, are a package deal, and together make up “the civil government”.
When a citizen appeals to a judge to clarify whether or not the actions of the premier or a police officer or a public health official are constitutional (i.e. legal), then this shows respect for the government and her institutions, and uses the law to our advantage. Paul – who wrote Romans 13 – does this multiple times: he uses his Roman citizenship status to avoid being flogged (Acts 22:22-29), he demands that the local magistrate personally escort him and Silas out of jail after their rights had been violated (Acts 16:37-40), and he appeals to Caesar (Acts 25:10-11). Christians ought not to shy away from doing the same. It is good and right to contend with injustice.
Let’s consider two examples:
First, a couple years ago, one of the Ontario ARPA chapters raised a few thousand dollars to put an ad on London city buses that simply said “Canada has no abortion laws.” About a month or so into the contract, due to mild pushback, the city pulled the ads down, without explanation, without notice or opportunity to reply, and without compensating the local ARPA group for the remaining two months of the contract. We wrote to the City explaining that what they had done was unconstitutional and asked them to reinstate the ads. They refused. So, together with ARPA Oxford, we took legal action. And we won! It cost a lot of time and money, but the City will apologize for what they did and will run the ads again.
Standing up for freedom through the courts shows respect for our laws, and for political or legal institutions. This is not about freedom of expression to say whatever we want to say, whenever and however we want to say it. It is the freedom to say a message that ought to be told, without censorship.
Second, a couple months ago, a Reformed church presented a re-opening safety plan to a government bureaucrat working within the local health authority. The document indicated that the church planned to recommence with the sacrament of holy supper. By this time restaurants were open again, and churches were gathering at 30% capacity. What was the reply of the local government employee? Without any sense of irony, he told the church that sacraments were “off the table”. Could the bureaucrat point to any law, order, or regulation that prohibited the sacrament? No. It was merely his opinion that celebrating the sacrament was too risky. That is unjust on its face, and must be opposed. A church that decided to celebrate communion anyway would not be the one acting illegally. The one acting illegally is that particular bureaucrat.
Consider Daniel’s example. It’s a striking story: King Darius signs a law that says, for 30 days, if men are going to pray, they can only pray to Darius and no other. Daniel 6:10 says, “When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously.” He acts immediately and decisively. And what is the charge against him? “Daniel pays no attention to you, O king, or the injunction you have signed.” In other words, “Daniel is violating Romans 13, O king! He’s a lawless man, O king. Throw him to the lions!”
But what is the first thing Daniel says to King Darius, after surviving a night with the lions? “O king, I have committed no crime against you.” (6:22). In other words, obeying the law of God, even if it clearly breaks the law of man, is no crime. Indeed, when citizens obey the law of God, they will never be a threat to any civil ruler.
To be clear in the context of COVID, I do not believe the civil government has no role during a pandemic at all. The civil government has a legitimate interest in the preservation of life. But that interest overlaps with the church’s interest in other aspects of public health, including spiritual and emotional health. Likewise, the sphere of family has an interest in social and emotional health. The state has no monopoly on public health. Modern “emergency powers” provisions cannot be allowed arbitrary and absolute sway in relation to the church or the family.
Otherwise, any state could declare an extended emergency (real or imagined), and indefinitely suspend the life of the institutional church with no recourse for the church.
It is similar with fire codes limiting church building capacity. These are within the sphere of the civil government, and for the common good. But if the local inspector insisted that a church was only allowed 50 people inside for fire safety reasons, but was allowing 400 people into the same-sized bingo hall down the street, the church leadership would be right to challenge the civil government on this.
On the other hand, we certainly admit a local building authority could condemn a particular building as unsafe. If Christians then met in that building deliberately and put lives at risk, the state could charge those in authority with some kind of reckless endangerment, especially if someone was hurt. This would be a matter of public justice, which is the mandate of the state. But this is entirely different from telling healthy people that they cannot meet to worship God in groups, ‘just in case’ they catch a virus. The crucial issue here is the unbiblical assumption that the state can claim unilateral authority and jurisdiction over public health, that is, that the state is the final authority on all aspects of public health.
God has given the church the keys of the kingdom, the ministry of mercy, and the ministry of the sacraments. This is not to say the State cannot play a supporting role here. But too few churches are firmly reminding the civil government that the government is dictating to (rather than consulting with) a partner sphere. Compare the approach of our day with that of the civil government during the far deadlier Spanish Flu of 1918, which killed 50 million people, the vast majority in the prime of their life. There, the civil government requested the clergy to omit all church services for a period of three weeks. The churches response the very next day was a unanimous vote to accede to the request of the civil government.
Insisting on dialogue between sovereign spheres, as used to happen, is not subversive. It seems to me the more biblical way. And in the final installment of this series I’ll share how that can play out practically.