What Is Persecution?
To my surprise, many of the comments on social media were in favour of him being reprimanded and imprisoned. Most of them came from obvious unbelievers, but that wasn’t the surprise. I was surprised by how many Christians agreed; I was surprised by how many Christians did not support James Coates.
The majority of the public discourse surrounding this event is wrapped up in a straightforward question: is James Coates being persecuted? If James Coates is being persecuted, he is correct in what he is doing, and if he is correct and I disagree with him, I might be wrong. “So,” the reasoning continues, “if I am to be correct, James Coates is not being persecuted.”
The way I worded the first sentence of this article gives away my thoughts about the situation. If I disagreed with what James Coates is doing, I would’ve stated it this way: “Last week, James Coates turned himself in to the police for contravening the Public Health Act and failing to comply with a condition of an undertaking. Pastor Coates is being held in a remand center until he agrees to comply with the court’s undertakings, namely, following public health orders.”
From observing the situation and looking at both sides of the argument, I have concluded that James Coates is being persecuted. Still, I don’t think those who follow the Public Health Act are necessarily wrong either.
But first, why I think James Coates is being persecuted:
Most modern dictionaries define persecution as oppression based on or because of religious (or various other) beliefs, but as Eerdmans and Brill’s The Encyclopedia of Christianity points out, “…there have been many events in Christian history in which Christians have suffered pressure of differing intensity and for different purposes.” This means the dictionary definition of persecution will not suffice; the history of Christianity alone makes it difficult to give a singular definition for it. However, The Encyclopedia of Christianity does say persecution in the strictest sense is what the early Christians experienced under the Roman Empire, both as an example and a standard. But not all persecution falls under this example. They observe that throughout Church history, “There were many reasons and occasions for persecution. The material cause is that society demands a loyalty that Christians cannot give because of their faith” (emphasis added). Persecution in a broader sense is, therefore, the repercussions of loyalty to God over loyalty to the state.
It is at this point many bring Romans 13 into the conversation. However, the problem is we don’t keep our Bibles turned to Romans 13 long enough to figure out Paul’s point in calling Christians to obey their civil magistrates. Paul points out that Christians must obey the government in civil matters; he does not say the government has authority in the church. That’s an essential point to keep in mind. Government is given to us and set over us by God to order society, tax the people, govern business and society, maintain an army, protect every stage of life, protect property, etc. (taken from The Reformation Study Bible notes). The church does not wield the power of the sword and is not responsible for these things, but when the state pulls away from God’s ordination and authority, the church is bound to prophetically call the state back to the place where God intends. The Westminster divines put it this way:
“God, the supreme Lord and King of all the world, hath ordained civil magistrates, to be, under him, over the people, for his own glory, and the public good: and to this end, hath armed them with the power of the sword, for the defense and encouragement of them that are good, and for the punishment of evil doers…Civil magistrates may not…in the least, interfere on matters of faith.”
The argument favouring James Coates’ punishment said his crime was civil, not religious. They said, “All he needs to do is follow the guidelines, and he can have church.” They said, “He is not detained for preaching the gospel; he is detained for civil disobedience.” At face value, these are true, but that’s where it ends. Listening to James Coates’ reason for continuing to hold church services without regarding the lockdown mandates and looking at how the church should relate to the government helps us realize this is religious and what we see in this case is truly religious persecution.
And, if we go back to the broader definition of persecution, we find the state doesn’t have to single out Christians to persecute them; they only have to step outside their God-ordained bounds of civil duty. I like how Canadian blogger Samuel Sey put it:
“Persecutions against Christians rarely specifically target Christians. Christians in the Roman Empire were always persecuted alongside other rebellious groups. And in China today, Christians are not necessarily uniquely targeted by the Communist Party. They are suffering persecution alongside other groups who do not conform to the Chinese government’s tyrannical orders.”
I think those who have different convictions than James Coates aren’t necessarily wrong in conducting their churches differently because what we face today is a matter of conscience. James Coates cannot return to his congregation to tell them only 15% can gather on Sunday without going against his conscience. Neither can those pastors who only allow 15% of their congregation to attend Sunday worship go against their consciences and have the entire congregation attend. James Coates' understanding of church is more biblical, but the other pastors aren't sinning in limiting their numbers.
We must continue reading past Romans 13, where Paul calls us to walk in brotherly love concerning matters of conscience. Love does not rejoice in the imprisonment of a brother, or delight in a sister indefinitely without her husband. Instead, love calls us to pray for them, to care for them, to visit them. Love does not denigrate others for differences in conscience.
So, let us pray for James Coates, his wife and children, GraceLife Church, and for all the pastors and churches working through Covid-19 and the government’s response to it. Let this also be a reminder for us to pray for those persecuted in other parts of the world.
For further reading on the biblical warrant for opening churches, read Pastor Mike Hovland's post on church and state here.