This week a kind and apologetic special constable knocked on my door early in the morning before work, while I was playing with my children, to give me a summons to appear in court later this summer. I will have to appear before a Justice of the Peace to answer to regulatory charges under the Reopen Ontario Act for holding “illegal church services” during the month of May while the province has been under a stay-at-home order expressly declaring that the gathering of God’s church with over 10 persons was non-essential.
As the provincial regulations have unfolded over the last year, even if you have had divided feelings on the issue, it has now become abundantly clear that our religious freedom and freedom to assemble has been deemed of lower importance than even non-essential businesses in the Ontario’s reopening plan.
To put this into perspective, at step two, essential business will be permitted to open at 50% occupancy, non-essential business at 25%, and religious gatherings at 15%. Aside from the reality that God is our highest authority, I’m reminded that even by man’s own law the freedom to gather and practice one’s faith is held sacred and written in our constitution. Despite this, the province feels that gathering indoors to sell marijuana, tobacco or even watch batteries is more important than the physical gathering of the Church. This to me is extremely troubling as a pastor and shepherd of a flock that I personally love, lose sleep over, and want to see above all else to be thriving in their obedience and relationship with Christ.
The charges for each service held could potentially come with a maximum fine of $100,000 or a maximum of one year in prison (to put this into some context the maximum penalty for common spousal assault under our criminal code is six months).
I am not the first pastor in Canada to be charged under reopening restriction laws, and if I do receive any prison time for my actions, I will not be the first Canadian pastor this year to be incarcerated for defying these restrictions.
The reason I am writing this is because a great deal of people that I care about tremendously will not understand the sincere prayer, deep thought and robust discussion that has led to and motivated my decisions this past year.
Long before receiving any charges I had counted the potential cost and had personally resolved that my commitment to faithfully shepherding the people under my care was worth the risk of life altering fines or imprisonment. Long before I was served with these charges I have prayerfully discerned what Gods word had to say about the current circumstances in our country and decided to allow the bible to dictate my actions. Long before we put my kids in the backyard so I could speak to the special constable on my front porch without causing them anxiety, my wife and I have had tear-filled conversations about doing what was right despite what it might mean for my family. I am not here to be a disrespectful dissident voice in a cancel culture of power struggle, but I am here and entirely convicted to obey God above all else and to obey his command that the church must gather.
I am not a covid-denier. I believe the virus is real and I know people have fallen ill and have died from it. Though we have not had any cases in our own family or church family, I understand it is a virus that has an elevated risk, in particular to a specific demographic. To those vulnerable I say this, isolating the weak or vulnerable is biblical and is not a sin, but I prayfully hope for a day when you return because I long to have you in our midst. I will continue to shepherd those who choose to not attend and will not turn away your need for counsel, prayer, visits, and support.
Over the last fifteen months, what I have observed is a government who has taken a reductionistic view of human health that prioritizes only the physical – the avoidance of contracting covid-19 – over seemingly every other parallel harm and facet of human flourishing.
The harms unquestionably exacerbated by lockdowns include: child abuse; healthy child development; despondent youth; mental illness; dug addiction; alcohol addiction; domestic violence; job loss; business failure; economic stagnation; financial burdens; broken and stressed marriages; delayed medical treatments and surgeries; people dying alone in hospitals; undignified funerals and mourning; deprivation of the communal celebration of life milestones including marriage, the birth of children, baptisms, and most importantly the gathering of the Church as one body to worship the triune God who is above all else worthy of our attention, submission, and worship.
Many who will read this statement will have heard or seen me discuss the survival and infection rate of the virus in comparison to these harms and the biblical response to quarantine during contagious pandemics (Leviticus 13). I remain concerned about all of these things, but my primary motivation for all the decisions that have led me here is love.
Love – first for God and secondly for neighbour (Matthew 22:37-40).
1 John 5:3 tells me that love is obeying the commands of God. As a pastor I am commanded to gather our people, to sing with them hymns and spiritual songs, to teach them the whole counsel of God, to lay hands on the sick, to greet my church family with intimate fellowship, to practice hospitality, to give them the Lords Supper, to baptize them, to counsel them, to share meals in their homes and so many other things that simply cannot be accomplished online.
The God who created us is triune. He is three in one, Father, Son and Spirit. Being made in his image he has created us for fellowship, for relationship, for being physically present with one another. Some disagree with my stance on covid and have asked why the church cannot simply meet on Zoom like everyone else.
The intimacy of some of our most dearly held earthly relationships (marriage, family, friends) cannot healthily exist and flourish through a distanced internet or phone connection. These relationships require real face time and physical proximity. The Church of Christ in its worship and obedience to Him deserves no less.
In a time of confusion, we have tried to uphold the freedom of conscience. I believe it is a sin to violate your own conscience (Romans 14:23), and therefore when stay at home orders were issued we had Christians in our church who felt compelled to obey the civil authorities on their understanding of Romans 13, and others who felt obedience to civil authority on this issue would be disobedience to the biblical command to gather.
At that time my own conscience compelled me to gather with those who desired to continue fellowship, preaching, teaching, counseling and hospitality. We recorded sermons for those who wished to stay home, and I additionally have led a service for those who wished to gather in smaller numbers.
What God has done is incredible.
Our church has grown. Not with freedom fighters or anti-lockdown protesters, but with Christians starved for fellowship and worship as well as non-believers looking for refuge and hope left weary, tired, and disheartened with dehumanizing government measures. They are now hearing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As dozens and dozens of new families have joined our church, often with tear filled eyes expressing gratitude for a haven for those with heavy burdens to come, be restored, redeemed and edified – all first through the worship of the one true God. I was reminded of the words of Jesus who compelled all to come to him (not a percentage, but all) who were heavy burdened that they might find rest for their souls in his presence.
We have not continued to gather to defy the government. We have not continued to meet in order to stand up for our rights (although respectful advocacy for justice is also important). We believe those things can be good when called for, but primarily we have simply assembled together that we might first and foremost obey God and also to minister to the needs of the people that God has sent to our door and knocked. I will not turn them away. I cannot.
While gathered, we experienced powerful and indescribable worship and it became apparent to us that God has been doing something special and moving among us.
It has never been our intention or desire to get into a public power struggle with the authorities We want to honour the police, the judges and the politicians God has placed over us. I pray for them and have asked you to do the same. That does not mean that we agree with all of their decisions or actions, but it does mean we will remain respectful, non-slanderous, and with a kind and self-controlled disposition in our dialogue and interaction with them.
If you disagree with what we have done, please at least see the heart behind our actions and do not contribute to the slander or to critical division which has become so rampant in the church right now. I thank those among us who have not always agreed with every decision but despite that have nevertheless maintained unity in the body during this difficult season.
To my extended circle of connection who read this, if you are a pastor or elder I urge you to prayerfully consider opening your church in obedience to God and to care for your sheep. If you are a family member or friend of mine I encourage you to call me if you want to discuss things further - but similarly, consider joining an open church and experiencing what god created you to experience.
In closing, please pray for me, our elders, and all connected to our church as we discern a way forward. Whatever comes my way from these summons pales in comparison to experiencing the Holy Spirit in such a profound way as we have counted the cost and continued to meet to Gods glory.
He is worth it. P Nate