Conscience and the Coates Trial

Monday, May 3, James Coates takes the stand to defend his conscientious objections to public health orders and their effects on his congregation.

In October, 2014, the current Premier of Alberta, Jason Kenney, delivered an address to the annual Red Mass dinner hosted by the Thomas More Lawyers’ Guild of Toronto. It was entitled “Conscience Versus the Spirit of the Age.” It was a reflection on the life, legacy and lessons of St. Thomas More.

He describes the nature of Thomas More’s reason for martyrdom well: “Saint Thomas More suffered martyrdom because he insisted that there was a limit to the King’s lawful authority, namely that he had to respect the freedom of the Church, guaranteed by the very nature of the State and the nature of the Church. These ancient principles were recognized in the first article of the Magna Carta, which guaranteed the Church’s freedom.” (italics mine) He writes later: “The spirit of the age can be a powerful juggernaut that is wont to run roughshod over the consciences of those who would resist it.” He concludes with a quote from Pope John Paul on the life of St. Thomas More: “Above all, he never compromised his conscience, even to the point of making the supreme sacrifice so as not to disregard its voice.”

It is a different age, a different time, a different culture than that of St. Thomas More. But as Kenney points out in his fine lecture, the conscience still plays a role in Canadian society: “The witness of conscience, including the consciences of people of faith, therefore offers a valuable contribution to the common good of society, and has certainly made a positive contribution to the development of Canada these past 150 years.”

As Luther pointed out in the year 1521, four years after he nailed the 95 theses to the door of the Church in Wittenburg, Germany, conscience must be bound by the Word of God. As he stood before church authorities that had allied with civil authorities to suppress the growing dissent, he stood up on the podium and stated these famous words: “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and by plain reason and not by Popes and councils who have so often contradicted themselves, my conscience is captive to the word of God. To go against conscience is neither right nor safe. I cannot and I will not recant. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.”

We are facing new issues as a society. The sweeping lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 are yet untested in history. The evidence of the dangers of lockdowns are mounting. Many pastors and elders have voiced their conscientious objections and a number of churches have acted on their conscientious objections to the various restrictions that have impeded and even shut down movement to and from the assembly. These voices echo the warnings of men who warned of this kind of authoritarianism in modern governments at the beginning of the 1900s: such as J. Gresham Machen and Abraham Kuyper. They also reflect the Biblical command to gather before the Lord in repentance and to ask for mercy and to care for one another in times of need.

As Coates takes the stand in the province of Alberta, I trust that Premier Kenney will remember his lecture in Toronto 7 years ago.

May every church leader reach the end of life and be able to confess with the Apostle Paul these words and receive their commendation from God Himself: “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.” (I Cor. 4:1-5)

Photo by Eliecer Gallegos on Unsplash

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