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An Open Letter to the Churches of Canada
And an open call to repentance
This week we released a podcast attempting a critique and response to another recent podcast hosted by Paul Carter and attended by several other pastors across Canada. We were concerned by what seemed to be an attempt both to excuse the rampant pastoral negligence during lockdowns as well as accusing dissenting pastors of pedantry and tribalism. In the wake of that discussion, we thought it would be helpful to provide a written follow-up not only summarizing our concerns but also laying out a clear path for repentance for Canadian churches, Christians, and pastors.
We believe this is important because there seems to be a push to recast the last three years into a narrative that may be convenient but that doesn’t actually reflect reality. This restructuring is taking place by relegating what we believe are first-order issues to the bounds of marginality — even to the point of being non-issues. If such a narrative holds weight, then the hoped-for conclusion seems to be that those pastors who judged it was time to fix bayonets were simply being divisive, and that such a posture negatively and unnecessarily impacted our witness in the culture.
But no one, except God, has the authority to declare reality. As creatures of time and space, all we can do is observe, acknowledge, and submit to the observable reality around us and the declared reality of Scripture. Contrary to the claims of Carter and others, several attempts were made during the pandemic to do exactly this.
According to Jesus, the refusal and consequent inability to see reality is a symptom of hypocrisy (Luke 12:54-56). Many clever and desperate attempts have been made to absolve oneself of the responsibility to discern the truth. At this point, any Christian who cannot acknowledge the utter devastation and injustice caused by the State (and by the citizens’ compliance) is either culpably lacking in the capacity to discern reality or overcome with hypocrisy. That lockdowns would have devastating consequences for our sheep and neighbours was not some hidden knowledge only available to “the experts.” Rather, it was the only reasonable conclusion one could make based on a basic understanding of human nature and the inescapable biblical rule that actions have consequences. To deny these immutable realities is one of the defining features of folly.
Many pastors, if not most, stand guilty of a sinful abdication of their duty to discern the truth. Their absolute deference to authority is not a sign of humble submission, but sinful idolatry. While we heartily affirm the necessity of limited deference to others in helping discern the truth, a total abdication of responsibility to discern and “judge with right judgements” is sinful and idolatrous. Such an abdication is to implicitly ascribe capabilities to human authority which only God possesses (i.e., omniscience and omnipotence). Further, such an abdication with regard to discerning the truth requires a kind of obedience (ie. free from the responsibility to judge right from wrong) which is only appropriate to offer to God. No man — husband, pastor, or head of state — has the right to command obedience without being tested.
We acknowledge that we ourselves made many mistakes during this time. We did not initially speak when we should have spoken; we reacted out of fear when we should have acted with courage; we trusted ourselves more that we trusted the living, enduring, word of God. We learned many lessons and shed bitter tears.
We also emerged from those dark days with vivid awareness that we needed help; many authorities (doctors, experts, officials, pastors) were making claims that couldn’t all be true. Wherever we landed, we knew there would be serious consequences, and we wanted to make sure we were doing the right thing. But when an effort was made to examine these various claims against the reality of evidence and the testimony of Scripture, the response was not eagerness and openness, but rather doubling down on dubious counter-claims, including: “The threshold for civil disobedience has not been met”; “Scripture’s command not to forsake meeting wasn’t referring to physical gatherings”; “This isn’t persecution”; and of course, “All of this [conflict] was over very slight disagreement. On a very marginal issue.”
In the space remaining, we want to examine this last claim in more detail, not only because it still seems to be the operating premise among many pastors, but because we do indeed long for reconciliation to take place among Canadian churches. But reconciliation requires repentance, and repentance requires identifying and acknowledging the sin in need of being repented of. Though we cannot repent on behalf of pastors and leaders, we can at least attempt to identify the areas that require repentance.
Sadly, from what we have observed, it seems like there are many pastors capable of teaching and preaching repentance but very few who ever entertain the possibility that they might be among those who need to repent.
We want to reiterate that the issues reopening churches stood and suffered for were not incidental or marginal, and that therefore to condemn such actions was sinful and wrong. But that is not our only aim. When Paul confronted Peter for “not acting in line with the truth of the gospel,” it was not simply for Paul or Peter’s sake, but also for the sake of those who “joined him in his hypocrisy.”
Hypocrisy is not a victimless crime. It is a maelstrom that sucks in and destroys innocence and sincerety — the cornerstones of a healthy church. When hypocrisy is ignored, it does not simply go away; rather, it becomes standard procedure. Love, therefore, seeks to expose it.
We are not interested in personal vindication but in vindication of the truth. We are not interested in our own glory but the greater glory of Christ.
Before we begin, it must be said that many Christian’s categories of first and second order doctrines have not always been helpful or biblical. The claim is often made that only a narrow set of doctrines (the trinity, the atonement) qualify as “Gospel-centered” and are therefore, apparently, the only ones we should refuse to relinquish. Yet all Scripture is breathed out by God and is “profitable for doctrine” (2 Tim. 3:16). All doctrine has implications for the Christian life. The difference is that training in healthy doctrine produces healthy Christians (2 Tim. 4:3) whereas unstable doctrine produces fearful, worldly Christians. And who would argue that such a Christian is a living denial of the Gospel?
Sometimes we forget that the Puritans — those spiritual giants whose dissent we so praise and admire — left the shores of England not due to infractions against today’s set of “first order” doctrines but for what many would now see as relatively minor state overreach into their worship.
Perhaps the category of Gospel-centred is much deeper and broader than we thought.
What follows, then, are what we believe to be six doctrines of “first order” importance that were directly under attack during lockdowns and church closures and yet received almost no discussion from pastors.
1. The Lordship of Jesus Christ over all rule and authority
And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. Colossians 1:18–20
The goal of the crucifixion and resurrection was nothing less than to establish the preeminence of Jesus Christ over all things. Including the state. The phrase “Jesus is Lord” (Rom.10:9), so benign to our ears, was actually one of the first creeds to be adopted by the early church and quickly became a touchstone against the totalizing claims of Caesar.
Jesus himself taught that there are limits to the state’s authority. This is clear from his command to “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” Implicit in such a statement is the assumption that there are categories of things which do not belong to Ceasar, such as the worship we owe to Christ. In this, it must be acknowledged that Christians often quest on the edge of a knife — which again is why reductionistic arguments are so dangerous and unhelpful. We must strive to be model citizens, while at the same time poised to resist “leviathan” when it demands the kind of obedience that properly belongs to Christ alone.
Defining and limiting the State’s authority is a first-order worship issue, which explains why Christians from every age have been so eager to shed their blood for it. We could refer to the unjust demands of the Jewish state, the Roman state, the Catholic state, the Church of England state, the Communist state, or the secular state. To ascribe authority to any state that has not been given by God is not godly submission, but rank idolatry.
2. The reality of human sinfulness
“…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” (Romans 3:23)
Many pastors and teachers have revealed an underlying functional pelagianism in which a certain class of people (namely the powerful) are almost treated as being above the effects of the fall. This is to entertain a criminal naivety to the point of malpractice. The reason the Bible is clear, and why we must be clear, about the limits of deference to the state is because there is an assumption and an expectation that every authority, sooner or later, will attempt to transgress its limits. They will veer outside their lane. And we must be ready when they do.
It is one thing to recognize the variety of gifts, skills, and expertise God has given to those inside and outside the church. It is another thing, and a sinful one, to assume the functional sinlessness of any authority outside of God. Again, this is idolatry. No human authority is total and therefore no human authority deserves total deference.
That so many Christian pastors encouraged us to blindly trust the same people who believe that boys can be girls, that murdering babies is “women’s health,” and that killing the poor is “compassionate,” was deeply troubling to say the least, and a sinful abdication at most. When faced with the claims of the state and its preferred experts, pastors should have been much less eager to assume the best of their intentions.
3. Standing with the oppressed
“Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (Proverbs 31:8–9)
Despite the claims of experts, lockdowns were the most devastating social experiment in our lifetime; perhaps in the lifetime of Canada. Many are now saying we won’t even see the full extent of the consequences for some time. It must also be said that the policies that were put into place had the least consequences on those imposing them and the greatest consequences on those beneath them. The people who were most affected were the poor and vulnerable: the sick, the elderly, the homeless. To side with the ruling class at the expense of the poor and vulnerable is not humble deference, but sinful partiality (cf. James 2).
It was, therefore, truly bizarre to hear the men on this podcast talk about the minor inconveniences and mental stress throughout lockdowns. In this they seemed to betray both enormous privilege and a bizarre insulation from the suffering of those around them. This distance from those who suffer is antithetical to the nature of Christ (cf. John 1:14), and those He calls to shepherd the flock (cf. Acts 20:18).
In their willful and persistent refusal to acknowledge the reality of oppression, certain pastors have chosen to side with the oppressors. In their refusal to “judge righteously and defend the rights of the poor and needy,” certain pastors have been complicit in the affliction of their neighbours. The Scriptures are resoundingly clear that the people of God are not to opt for silence in the face of oppression, but to speak and act.
It is a stain on the Canadian church that its Shepherds have, with near uniformity, been identified with the ruling class instead of those suffering under the state’s abuse.
What has become apparent is that many Christians have adopted a definition of obedience that operates primarily within a world of private devotion and experience. This posture allows — indeed, encourages — a view of reality that is blatantly out of focus. Christians can be “local church centered” and then turn around and advocate for the closing of the local church. Christians can be against tyranny and then turn around and recommend we be complicit in it. Christians can decorate the tombs of dissidents and then condemn their offspring.
There is no such thing as costless obedience. Obedience that doesn’t cost anything isn’t obedience; it is worldliness. What Christians needed most during lockdowns were not more more reasons to comply and be comfortable, but biblical principles to build on. And this was exactly what many pastors refused to supply.
4. The necessity of corporate worship
“…not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:25)
The preaching of God’s word in the assembly, the reception of the sacraments, and the practice of church discipline have all historically been considered first-order doctrines. These practises are inseparable from the very nature of the Church itself; one cannot neglect them without denying one’s fundamental identity, and thus, do great harm (Heb 10:25). One of the biggest gaslights during lockdowns were the numerous attempts by pastors to convince Christians that there now exists some controversy over matters which have been totally undisputed until now, when they conveniently happen to be under attack.
It is one thing to allow for freedom of conscience for gathering in terms of some hypothetical, end-of-world scenario — there’s an active shooter on the roof, the building is on fire, you’ve been manacled to the kitchen table.
But attempting to forbid or redefine corporate worship as it has always been understood is an entirely different matter.
It was amazing to hear those who claimed to be so confused during covid be so sure of things in the midst of it. Zoom church is fine! Fragmenting the body is fine! Masks are fine! Vaccines are fine! Everything is fine! And yet — oh, we knew so little, what could we have done? If they were truly confused, why were they so quick to offer their conclusions on matters? And if they weren’t confused, why do they say they were?
While there is certainly freedom to practise various safety protocols as a gathered assembly, it is another thing entirely to forbid the Church from gathering completely. Furthermore, it is deceitful and underhanded to redefine the nature of the gathered Church in order to deny that any such prohibitions are taking place.
5. The preservation of conscience
“Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.” (1 Corinthians 8:12–13)
Pastors who forbid what Christ commands and command what Christ forbids have sinned against Christ.
Masks are not, and have never been, a matter of Christian obedience. To wear a non-aerosol resistant mouth covering against an aerosol-transmitted virus has always been a matter of conscience, and perhaps optimism. Mandating the wearing of a mask as a requirement to attend worship is blatantly sinful. Requiring something of a congregant that God does not require is not an act of piety or compassion but an act of pharisaism.
As far as we’re concerned, any pastor who forbade a member of their church from attending worship because of their unwillingness to wear a piece of cloth on their face — and continues to maintain the moral validity of such an action — has disqualified themselves from ministry. In their callous rejection of sheep that believed differently than them, they demonstrated a lack a basic understanding as to matters of conscience, a dangerous authoritarian attitude, and a staggeringly high view of themselves.
6. Loving your neighbor
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:7–8)
Reducing “loving your neighbor”’ to following ineffective and dangerous public health mandates was sinful. Christians need ensure they are defining love, and everything else, according to Scripture and not how godless authorities demand we show it. Even by the state’s account the people who were most vulnerable received the least care — where were the pastors speaking out?
Was it loving to isolate the elderly like animals for months on end and let them die scared and alone? Was it loving to treat human beings worse than plants, forbidding them even air and sunlight? Was it loving to cancel treatment for cancer patients so that they died in their early 30’s? Was it loving to forbid people from working, taking years off their life expectancy and changing the entire trajectory of their family’s lives? All while you kept your job? Was it loving to publicly support measures which exponentially fuelled inhumanity in citizens — to the point where many had begun advocating for the death of those who refused to comply with restrictions?
Even now, and largely because of those measures, our country has descended to a level of immorality and hatred we have never known before — and it was totally supported by the church under the guise of love.
A Final Word on Freedom
“For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” (Galatians 5:13)
When we say “freedom,” we mean the right and responsibility to pursue obedience to Jesus Christ by faithfully exercising our duty to God and man. Freedom is not the right and ability to do what we want but rather the right and ability to do as we ought. Framing the defense of freedom as the selfish pursuit of worldly-minded Christians is a condemnable straw man. In this again we see a retreat to pietistic categories of obedience (“I can be free in Christ and still affirm mandates that prevent me from freely gathering to worship!”)
To denigrate freedom as a fundamentally selfish endeavour is to oppose the worship of the true and living God and to denigrate and demean his creatures. To oppose freedom as defined by the Bible, is to oppose both God and man. It is rich to hear men who, by their own admission, didn’t suffer the loss of freedom to the degree of many — and who continue to enjoy enormous freedom — slander and scoff at those who advocated for defending it.
Though we would agree that the Canadian church is indeed suffering a crisis of unity, the root cause is not pettiness, but preferring comfortable Canadian cultural Christianity over the totalizing call of Christ on our lives. We therefore call those who, by their silence or endorsement, failed to serve the sheep entrusted to them and the communities they were called to serve, to repent. This is the first step to reconciliation.
As Christians, we hold out hope that there would be many, like Peter, who, when he turned, did so to the strengthening of his brothers (Luke 22:32). What has been the greatest failure of the Canadian church can yet be its finest hour.
The choice is ours.
“In early December of 2020 I received a kind email from The Gospel Coalition Canada about my involvement in protesting the present lockdowns and restrictions on churches. I was invited to participate in a written interview on three questions related to the provincial mandates here in Ontario, the theological perspective that motivates my position, and to comment on the courses of action that churches can take. I was glad to accept, and wrote a few paragraphs as requested. After a few weeks I was told that this was not the sort of content the editors at TGC had been looking for, and that my responses would not be appearing on their platform after all.” Joe Boot, “The Gospel Coalition Article that Never Was – Rebooted” https://www.ezrainstitute.com/resource-library/articles/the-gospel-coalition-article-that-never-was-rebooted/ (accessed April 26, 2023).