Canada: Ontario church elders facing large fines
A report from The Christian Post gives an example of civil governments using their authority in relation to the church in a seemingly unprecedented way.1 The circumstances, of course, are unique, but it gives Christians in North America pause when we see the long arm of the law going where it has not gone before, at least not in recent memory.
The example arises out of a violation committed by Trinity Bible Chapel of Waterloo, Ontario by virtue of holding a worship service on December 27, 2020. The particular law violated was the “Reopening Ontario Act” (ROA), which restricts both indoor and outdoor gatherings to ten people. The penalty for violating the ROA is a large fine, $10,000. All this sounds familiar to us, no matter where we live. Businesses, schools, and churches alike are working to understand and interpret shape-shifting restrictions, and trying to live, work, and worship in accord with the laws established by the powers that be. Violations are happening all around us and fines are rendered accordingly. Trinity Bible Chapel is just one example of many.
By bringing this to the attention of the readers of the Standard Bearer, I do not intend to enter into the matter of the legitimacy of the law, or the propriety (or lack thereof) of violating it or abiding by it. Instead, I want to draw attention to the observation of the elders of Trinity Bible Chapel:
Officers from the Waterloo Region Police Service (WRPS) showed up at each of our homes last night at roughly 8 p.m. and gave us each a summons to court. While other pastors in Ontario have faced similar charges under the ROA for holding church services, to our knowledge this is the first time that each and every member of an entire elders board has been charged for gathering a church to worship.2
It would not be a surprise if a church, as an institution, were fined for a violation of restrictions like these. That has occurred with many organizations and businesses for violations of various public-health restrictions. But in this case in Ontario, each of the six individual elders was assessed a $10,000 fine. Would the same tactic be used for the governing board of a business, so that each receives a fine for similar violations? The elders state, “It appears the WRPS is trying to make an example of us.”3
The reach of the law is getting longer in these last days. As Christians, we have every expectation that as the Day of the Lord comes, the aim of civil government will have a special focus on the church, and not for her benefit. Still, the Word of the Lord will endure to the end: “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake” (I Pet. 2:13). Accordingly, the urgency of the biblical exhortation to pray for our earthly rulers is impressed upon us more than ever (I Tim. 2:1-4).
Australia: New law requires priests to break the “seal of confession”
Several articles in a September issue of Christian News report on a new law in Australia that requires Roman Catholic priests to break the “seal of confession” to fulfill the mandate to report suspected child abuse.4 In the Roman Catholic Church, confession or penance is regarded as a sacrament; the idea of the “seal” of confession is that the priest may not breach the confidentiality of confession under any circumstances.
The Roman Catholic Archbishop in Tasmania said that priests are “unable” to comply with the law. The Archbishop’s reasoning is thoroughly Roman Catholic, as we might expect. The refusal is grounded not in the Word of God, but in the word of the Pope: “the Pope made it very clear there can be no exceptions to the inviolability of the seal of confession.”5
Although the law in Australia is new, similar laws are already in place in the United States. All fifty states have laws regarding the mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse and neglect, and as of April 2019, twenty-eight states include members of the clergy as mandated reporters.6 Reformed ministers and church councils should be aware of these laws and regularly review them.
It can be tempting to question the wisdom of such laws: Is the Roman Catholic Archbishop right when he says, “This will deny priests the opportunity to encourage offenders to report themselves to police”?7 In other words, will anyone caught in such a sin dare speak to their pastor when the law requires the pastor to report it to the authorities? I dare not speak to the effect that this law might have on one who has committed the sin of abusing a child. However, I speak with confidence to the chief concern of a repentant child of God who has committed such a sin.
By the grace of God, the penitent sinner’s chief concern, and his minister’s chief concern, is not finding an escape from the temporal punishment of the civil government. His chief concern is that the sin is provoking to God and met with His wrath. His chief interest is in the gospel of Jesus Christ, whereby there is a way of escape from the dreadful punishment of God’s just wrath and liberty from bondage to such sins. The repentant child of God then shows the sincerity of his repentance by his patient submission to the consequences of his sin.
Consider Jesus as pastor to the penitent malefactor who was crucified alongside our Lord. The malefactor pled, “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom” (Luke 23:42). He did not ask for relief from the temporal punishment of death by crucifixion, and, although Jesus could have granted just that, He did not. Rather, Jesus assured him in the midst of the malefactor’s just temporal punishment, “Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.” Jesus assured him of salvation from God’s judgment, and encouraged him not with earthly hope, but with the certain hope of paradise. This particular malefactor would enter into that glory through the judgment of his own cross (his death), and on the basis of his Savior’s cross (his righteousness). It is striking to observe that in this case God used temporal judgment to impress upon the penitent malefactor the seriousness of sin and the need for Jehovah’s salvation in Jesus Christ.
Contrary to the Roman Catholic refusal to comply, we ought to comply and acknowledge these laws as good. In essence, the state declares, “The evil of child abuse must be met with judgment. In order for us to fulfill our calling to punish evil-doers, you must report suspected child abuse.” This is indeed the government’s God-given responsibility. The church would rejoice without hesitation if the same approach were followed with other sins that are not judged and punished but ignored or celebrated in the world. Earthly rulers are ministers of God as much as pastors, elders, and deacons are, though in a different capacity. When they do their work as God has commanded (whether they acknowledge Him or not), they must be watching for evil and be ready to judge and punish with the power God has given them. Our calling is to be subject to them in this God-given responsibility. “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same” (Rom. 13:4).
India: Religious nationalism
The two reports cited above are examples of small but significant ways in which civil government has the capability to touch the lives of God’s people, for good or for evil. In the Western world, we may be thankful that any encroachment upon our religious liberty and outright persecution takes place on a small scale, while also acknowledging more difficult days are ahead. A look around to other nations gives us a glimpse of what may soon come.
One country in which Christians face severe persecution is India, where we have friends both in Vellore (the south) and in Kolkota (the north). India ranks tenth on the “2021 World Watch List” of Open Doors USA, which ranks the fifty countries with the worst persecution of Christians.8 The list not only ranks the severity and scope of the persecution, but identifies the sources of persecution. In some cases, the source is “Islamic oppression,” or “organized crime and corruption,” while in other cases the source is directly connected to civil government, such as “dictatorial paranoia” or “religious nationalism.”
Religious nationalism in India shows its teeth toward all religions outside of Hinduism, not just Christianity, but a special report by The Voice of the Martyrs draws a clear line from India’s re-elected Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, to recent events of severe persecution of Christians.9 Prime Minister Modi is affiliated with a Hindu-nationalist group that believes “all true Indians are Hindus, regardless of what they call themselves or believe.”10 With a government holding to such an ideology, Christians and churches face an uphill battle toward being recognized and protected by the government, and can be treated with official and unofficial hostility for resisting the national movement toward Hinduism. Emboldened by the government, mobs and extremists (and perhaps some “lewd fellows of the baser sort”) carry out this agenda against Christians, first with threats and then with all forms of violence and murder.
While we may be rightly concerned about the imminent encroachment of civil government upon our religious liberty, reports of severe persecution in countries like India should awaken us to gratitude for the liberty we still have. It should also remind us that a “fiery trial” for God’s church is a present reality, being endured now by the one, holy, catholic church (I Pet. 4:12). We may not be surprised, nor think it strange when it comes upon us, “But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy” (I Pet. 4:13).
1 https: //www.christianpost.com/news/ontario-church-elders-charged-with-exceeding-worship-limits.html.
2 https://trinitybiblechapel.ca/press-release. Emphasis added.
4 “Priests ‘cannot comply’ with laws that break seal of confession, Tasmania’s archbishop says.” Christian News, September 28, 2020.
5 Christian News, September 28, 2020.
7 Christian News, September 28, 2020.
9 “Radical Hindu Reality in India: Five Christians Murdered in Two Months.” The Voice of the Martyrs: Special Report, December 2020.
10 The Voice of the Martyrs: Special Report, December 2020.