Earlier this year, three churches in the lower mainland brought a lawsuit claiming that BC’s restrictions on in–person worship violated their Charter rights to gather. They claimed that while Scripture requires them to obey civil authorities, that duty “ends when they command that we engage in behaviour contrary to God’s Word or when they prohibit what God commands us to do.” They continue that “all Christians are called to assemble, in-person, for regular corporate worship services … because it is essential to our spiritual health.”
In other words, Scripture commands us to obey the authorities unless those orders violate our understanding of God’s Word, in which case we will do what our conscience bids us do, regardless of the consequences to others.
I was delighted when Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson ruled against their claim. As he noted in his ruling, the question before the court “was whether Dr. Bonnie Henry acted reasonably given the information available to her … as she “attempted to address the risk of accelerated transmission of the virus, protect the vulnerable, and maintain the integrity of the health–care system.”
He noted that the “impacts of these orders on the religious petitioners’ right are significant”, but that “the benefits of the objectives of the orders are even more so.”
To put it simply, Justice Hinkson ruled that while Dr. Henry’s orders do infringe on the Charter rights of religious communities to gather, they are reasonable because protecting the public is more important in this instance than those rights. That is the reasonable balance we all need to set.
Now, I don’t know Justice Hinkson’s faith commitments, but it strikes me that his ruling says something profoundly true about what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. He understands something which those three churches, and others, do not: Being church does not mean insisting on our own rights, but serving others.
As Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 13, “love does not insist on its own way.” Jesus tells us that the heart of the gospel is to love and serve our neighbours.
You can see something of the spirit of this lawsuit in the signs held by protestors on the steps of the courthouse: “We were created to give glory to God together”; “COVID test is a fraud”; “My government is lying to me”. They clearly think their rights are more important than the common good.
These signs are untrue. The protestors have fallen victim to one of the big lies of our time, that government is out to get us. More significantly, these protestors show how completely they misunderstand what it means to be church. They don’t have a clue about what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
Now I get how hard this pandemic has been for believers. I understand how difficult it is not to be able to gather. It has been tough for us all as we try to figure out a new way of being church. Like the rest of society, believers are struggling with loneliness and isolation and a hunger to be with others. I understand all of that fully.
But this court case is not the way. Ignoring reasonable health orders intended to help society overcome the virus is not the way. Humorously, I picture Jesus on his way to the cross, or early Christians persecuted for their faith, insisting that their rights are being violated.
Justice Hinkson knows something about what it means to be church. The church’s mission is to protect the vulnerable and help maintain systems which serve us all. We are called to care for and care about other people. That’s what it means to love our neighbours.
Some churches have failed miserably.
Justice Hinkson points out to all of us once again that as members of a society, as members who are responsible to care for the health of the community, there are times we must be willing to give up our individual rights so that together, we can care for the common good. I believe that’s true of us all. I believe even more strongly that that is what the church is called to do and to be.
To insist on our individual rights is to live in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways. It is certainly not what it means to be the church which is charged to live above all by the rule of love which insists that as we care for each other, we are loving God.