Harvest House, 2022.
The inspiring story of two churches defying the secular state:
The basic right to worship God freely was severely challenged over the past few years as most Western governments clamped down on all sorts of basic liberties – including religious freedom – all in the name of ‘keeping us safe’. Sadly most churches, pastors and church leaders completely caved in. Those that resisted this Big Brother statism were in the minority.
Two of them that did are featured in this book. Coates is the pastor of GraceLife Church in Edmonton, Canada. Busenitz is on the pastoral team of Pastor John MacArthur’s Grace Community Church in Los Angeles, California. Both made headlines around the world for daring to defy the secular state and remain true to Christ.
Here they tell their stories, as well as provide some basic biblical principles to help believers deal with the conflict between Christ and government compliance. Given that we can expect to see the ever-expanding state get worse in days ahead, these are important matters to deal with now. Early on the authors inform us of their intentions:
“This book is about government overreach – how civil authorities exploited a public health issue to stir up fear and shut down freedom. Our concern centers on the restrictive measures employed by public officials and the effect those regulations had on local churches that wanted to gather in obedience to Christ (Hebrews 10:25).”
They continue: “The honor that we rightly owe our earthly governors and magistrates (Romans 13:7) does not include compliance when such officials attempt to subvert sound doctrine, corrupt biblical morality, exercize ecclesiastical authority, or supplant Christ as head of the church in any other way.”
The first half of the book tells us about these two churches and what they endured at the hands of overzealous authorities. Each author has around five chapters to elaborate on their experiences. Many would already know of their stories, but I have written about both Coates’ and MacArthur’s churches at various times in the past, including here:
Both stories are quite shocking, but Coates may have paid the heaviest price: for seeking to keep his church open he spent 35 days in prison – in maximum-security! All because he felt it was wrong for the secular state to tell the church when and how it can allow the worship of the living God.
Let me mention just one brief aspect of what he said in his chapters. He noted how it was not just the state, but the media that was acting hand in hand with the state that made life so hellish for him and the church:
One of the tools the government used to try to bring about our compliance was the mainstream media. Their aim was to paint us in the worst possible light, garner public outrage and animosity, and use that to intimidate us into submission. The media was hammering us, the comment threads were filled with hate and vitriol, and our congregants were beginning to experience opposition from co-workers and extended family members.
As to MacArthur’s church, Busenitz says this near the end of his account:
At the end of a year-long legal battle, the county’s efforts to shut down the church ultimately came to nothing. Despite their threats and intimidation in late 2020 and early 2021, our congregation continued to meet every Sunday for corporate worship without interference….
Grace Community Church did not merely survive during this season. By God’s grace, our church thrived. Attendance grew; giving went up; and opportunities for ministry increased exponentially. More importantly, our church family witnessed the protective power of God, who allowed us to continue meeting when public officials tried to shut us down. For that we give Him all the glory.
When I first became a Christian 50 years ago and started to read the New Testament, the stories of persecution stood out to me, and I wondered how that might look in the contemporary West. Little did I know that within my lifetime we too would experience this sort of Statist crackdown on Christianity.
But as the authors remind us: “Persecution of the church by government authorities has been the norm, not the exception, throughout church history. . . . Historically, the two main persecutors have always been secular government and false religion. Most of Christianity’s martyrs have died because they refused to obey such authorities.”
As to these two churches, in both cases they had reached out to the authorities, seeking to come up with some sort of amicable solution. But it seems that Trudeau’s Canada and Newsom’s California were more interested in showing who is boss, and in squashing any defiance from Christians. Compromise is not possible when the State thinks it can take the place of God.
The second half of the book examines both Scripture and church history, delineating what are the proper limits of the state, and what churches should be able to freely do without outside interference. Biblical principles are discussed in some detail on how church and state are to relate.
In terms of how we are to view human authorities, the authors list these nine points (which I present in outline form):
-God is the supreme authority over the entire universe.
-God gave human beings authority to rule over the earth.
-Every human government is given its authority by God.
-Those in government are accountable to God for how they exercise their authority.
-God has designed the proper role for government.
-The government has the right to collect taxes to accomplish its God-given purpose.
-When a government abuses its powers, … it does so in violation of God’s law.
-Citizens suffer when those in power exercise their authority in reckless or corrupt ways.
-One day God will establish the perfect government.
Given the importance of Romans 13:1-7 in this overall discussion, the authors spend some time examining how we are to interpret it, along with the other key texts on the Christian’s response to government: 1 Timothy 2:1-8; Titus 3:1-2; and 1 Peter 2:13-17. They also discuss the many texts that speak about believers resisting the wrongful edicts of the state and engaging in civil disobedience and conscientious resistance.
Near the end of the book they look at how the Covid statist overreach exposed a number of deficiencies in the evangelical church. These include a deficient ecclesiology, a deficient approach to Scripture, a deficient theology of persecution, and a deficient knowledge of history – both church and secular.
The book finishes with a chapter on “Christ, Courage, and Noncompliance.” They write:
By remembering our God-given mandate, our Christ-centered message, and our Spirit-empowered mission, we can exhibit the same kind of gospel courage that the apostles demonstrated so powerfully here in Acts 5—the courage to speak, to stand, and to suffer for Christ. We tend to think that we have to muster up some kind of internal fortitude in order to be courageous. In reality, all we have to do is be obedient and live out our biblical convictions with consistency—even when it becomes unpopular to do so.
We can be grateful that not all churches and church leaders capitulated during this time of heavy-handed government crackdowns and lockdowns. We can be inspired and encouraged by these two brave Christian leaders – and others like them – who dared to be a Daniel in such dark and oppressive times.