The Freedom to do as we ought! (FT Pt. 4)
Part #4 of 4 in an adaptation of the ARPA Canada Fall Tour 2020, Defending our Christian Legacy of Liberty.
In the third part of this series, we focussed on how our Charter of Rights and Freedoms works and how we can use it, while maintaining a Biblical posture of respect for civil authority.
We’re wrapping up this series with a suggested five-step process for determining how to respond to infringements on your freedoms.
Five-Step Analysis for Processing Charter Infringements
So, how do we work through an analysis of responding to not only COVID restrictions on worship, but other restrictions on Christians’ freedom to do as we ought to do, whether that be protesting a grave injustice like abortion, offering pastoral help to someone struggling with their gender identity, being a faithful business person, or operating a Christian school in an aggressively secular environment? How do we decide when a line has been crossed?
Here are some thoughts on how to assess challenges we may face to our freedoms. These are not infallible – they are thoughts from a Christian constitutional lawyer doing my best to think biblically, with the best interests of the church’s mission at heart. Here are five steps I believe are helpful to follow when considering whether the government is infringing on your freedoms:
- Gut check. Does the restriction seem manifestly unfair? If so, it might well be. So, go seek counsel from another. Perhaps they convince you that the restriction is not unfair after all. But if they think the same, then take it to someone with the office to do something about it. Some questions you might want to ask yourself at this first stage:
a. Are there clear examples of double standards? For example, I am told in Ontario that it is unsafe to meet for one hour a week inside a well-ventilated, spacious church building to worship at more than 30% capacity. But I am permitted to fly on an airplane for 5 hours, locked in an airtight tube, filled to 95% capacity. Another example would be bubble zones around abortion clinics. In these zones, abortion advocates are free to promote and encourage abortion for any reason, but I am not allowed to share my pro-life views or offer pro-life resources. These seem to me to be a double standard.
b. Is there an abuse of power? For example, is a bylaw officer abusing his power? The ridiculous issuing of $800 or $900 tickets for roller blading with your kids, or pausing in a park to check text messages, or shooting hoops by yourself, is an abuse of power. Fining a street preacher $1,200 for feeding the homeless is an abuse of power.
c. Are restrictions patently unreasonable, arbitrary, illogical, incoherent, or contradictory? I could give a few examples here, but will simply say that logic is a law of God; therefore, illogical rules are ungodly.
2. Office check. If you are a parent or an elder, ask yourself: Does the particular demand of the civil government impinge on something that’s core to what you are responsible for, your duties of office, such that it becomes difficult or impossible to faithfully fulfil your duties? The attitude here is not, “You can’t tell me what to do!” Rather, our attitude is, “God has called me to do this, and I am primarily responsible for this. Your order or restriction is impeding my ability to do what I ought to do. So please stop! And if you won’t, we will obey God rather than man.”
Our starting point is humble respect for the authority of each office, recognizing that each is under the ultimate authority of Jesus Christ. Keep in mind, a higher office bearer will most likely have more information to prudently weigh in the balance when making his decision. But, when there is a clear abuse of authority or an overstepping of the limits of civil government, other office bearers should be ready to gently but firmly say, “No, this goes beyond the authority you have inherent to your office.” Here are two examples:
a. Within the family, when the government prohibits spouses or children from visiting and checking in on parents, they overstep. The horrific situation in long-term care homes, particularly in Quebec, would mostly have been avoided had adult children been able to check in on and care for their loved ones.
b. Within the church, when the civil government prohibits the reasonable gathering of the church, the ministry of the gospel, the sacraments, prayers, songs, and the ministry of mercy, office bearers need to be willing to assert their authority in their office. This is about “tending the flock that is your charge.” Not singing, and not gathering together, is contributing to depression, suicide, addiction, and increasing levels of abuse.
3. Initiate “institutional dialogue”
a. Other sectors of society regularly do this. They call this “lobbying” – for example, consider the restaurant and airline industries. How did airplanes get permission to pack their planes again? With quiet, behind the scenes lobbying. Why are restaurants able to remain open in Ontario and BC, sometimes with capacity higher than churches? Quiet lobbying. So, when ARPA puts out a call to action for Christians to do the same for church services, I am puzzled when we get feedback that Christians “shouldn’t be trying to get special treatment.” This is about educating a secular government. They can’t be expected to understand the importance of corporate worship, and how will they ever know if we don’t tell them?
b. A great example of institutional dialogue happened in Southern Ontario with the introduction of mandatory masks. In two Reformed churches in southern Ontario, the pastors went to their local public health authority and explained why masks were more than a mere inconvenience for many to corporate worship. Therefore, the church informed the health authority that they would insist that masks be worn on the way into and out of church, but not during the actual service when people were seated in a socially distant way. In both cases, the churches received special accommodation.
4. If, after initiating dialogue, things don’t go your way, call a lawyer. Do not necessarily go with the first impression given by some lower level bureaucrat. A lawyer can defend your freedom to do what you ought to do. This doesn’t necessarily mean court action – sometimes a call to a local health authority from a lawyer can quickly clear up misunderstandings.
5. Finally, prepare for civil disobedience: Must your church disobey the civil government with some of these COVID restrictions? I do think a clear case where civil disobedience is warranted would be the prohibition on the sacrament of Lord’s Supper in areas where restaurants are open. However, all of this talk about freedom is not limited to COVID. There may be a time when the judiciary, the executive, and the legislature all agree to prohibit what God requires of us. For example, Bill C-6 was introduced a couple weeks ago and that will have a direct impact on pastoral ministry for people struggling with deep, existential questions about identity, ethics, and belonging. Civil disobedience may very well be required.
Key in all of this is a heart and attitude of patient grace, with humble charity toward each other. I am thankful for the many Christians God has put in particular places of authority right now: elected legislators, judges, doctors and nurses in hospitals, and caregivers in retirement care homes. I know they are trying their best. Pray for them and be patient with them. Without them there, I suspect things would be much worse for the church today.
To summarize then, if you think your freedom to do what you ought to do is being infringed by the government, here are five steps to consider following (with patient grace): 1) gut check, 2) office check, 3) dialogue, 4) call a lawyer and 5) civil disobedience.
Advocating for freedom for Christians is not selfish. To be a Christian is to serve. To be a Christian is to love. To be a Christian is to be other-focussed. Freedom, properly understood, is the right to do as we ought for God, and for neighbour. Our current civil government hinders us from doing so.
The church can be a blessing to her country and city in times of prosperity. She will be a greater blessing to her country and city in times of adversity. She must be free to be that blessing in times of need. And if she cannot be free, she must be courageous. God told his people to avoid tyrants, and to not return to slavery, whether back in Egypt, or under a new tyrant in the promised land. Because He is the Lord who sets His people free! Paul writes to the Romans, and to us, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, Abba, Father!” (Romans 8:15)
So, let’s cry out to that Father, so that we can be set free from slavery to fear and kept free from tyranny! And let’s take a stand. Stand on guard for Canada and make your voice one more by which God keeps our land glorious and free.