Over the course of the last 3 months, an Alberta pastor spent some time in prison. Following his release, he is scheduled to go to trial on May 3-5. His Church, GraceLife Church of Edmonton, is now meeting in an alternate location now that AHS and RCMP officers in Alberta have shut down their building. If I had told you that this would happen in February 2020, I would have been called a conspiracy theorist, or told that I am fear-mongering.
I don’t know Pastor James Coates, or any of his elders, or any of the members in this congregation. So I can’t really vouch for their characters or persons on an “I know that guy” basis. I know the area somewhat having interned in churches in Parkland County and having worked a little further away out of Grande Prairie. But I was not in Alberta long enough to have a thorough understanding of the region.
If you read through all the news sources on this brother and his congregation, it appears that they have proven themselves to be above reproach in many ways. Of course, their incessant refusal to follow health orders in the assembly of believers for worship appears to have warranted the reproach of the premier, public health officials and many pastors and churches throughout Alberta. Each reproach comes from its own unique angle. At the end of the day, these brothers do still have legal protections within the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the criminal code.
There have been a number of news reports and articles released that range all the way from inflammatory, to balanced, to defamatory.
Does every church have to do exactly what GraceLife is doing? Of course not. But every church should be seeking to learn from the GraceLife debacle. And there are things for Reformed Churches to learn as well.
- There is a debate of over certain principles in the Reformed Churches (re the 5th commandment). There are three basic camps 1) Obey the government; 2) Submit to the government; 3) Rebel against the government. I would contend against the third option, but I understand where people are coming from in both the first and the second camp. It appears that James Coates and his elders are in the second camp as much as many want to put them in the third camp. James Coates and GraceLife have shown a willingness to submit to the government in this situation, especially by submitting to judicial process. But this has warranted a critique from certain leaders in Reformed Churches that they are not following the command of Christ because they are not obeying the governing authorities.
- There is a shift in how authority is understood and used in North America as reflected in this thoughtful article by MLA Drew Barnes. Part of this shift in authority is seen in the continued shift away from Christian principles for government towards secular principles for government. The Church and it’s officers no longer hold a central role in the community. It is one of many faith groups. It’s officers hold just one opinion among many faith leaders. Churches that were once approached respectfully as an authoritative body and even took in the sick and infirm are increasingly separated into a private sphere.
- There is a heavier emphasis on technocratic powers in North America at expense of the more Biblical focus on courts and those who run them as the proper authorities. This means that society is governed by technical experts. Rather than simply receiving advice from various experts, those experts are given un-elected authority through various emergency response measures. These experts may be experts in their various fields like science, but they are usually not experts in law, economics, or religion. Nevertheless, government officials continue to make theological statements about the nature of worship.
I would love to sit around the table with Pastor Coates and other Reformed pastors in Canada who have taken the position of critics. I am sure that there would be a great and animated discussion. Many of us have similar concerns over how the last year has affected not only churches but also individuals. Some questions for discussion:
What does ministry look like in this brave new world? What does Jesus want from His servants? What does it mean to be the Church? What is the authority that Jesus has given His office-bearers in the sanctuary? What role do we hold in the sanctuary in both Scripture and the Reformed confessions? How can we be a salt and a light for King Jesus in a world where there is so much apostasy, loneliness, abuse, mental illness, confusion, anger, depression, sorrow? Is it possible to be apart, but also together? How can we stir each other up to love and good works in real and tangible ways? What are necessary risks that Jesus calls us to take for the advance of the gospel? Is the gospel advancing? What losses are churches taking? How and why? Above all, what does it look like to place the highest importance on obedience to Jesus Christ and His Word in the world that we live in?