By André Schutten
Christians take prayer very seriously. It is the most important part of our thankfulness to God (Lord’s Day 45, Heidelberg Catechism). James teaches us that it’s no good to pray for the hungry and poor if we ourselves don’t also help the hungry and the poor (James 2:14-26). How does God answer our prayer to feed the hungry? Sometimes through miracles, but most often through his people feeding the hungry!
So, let’s apply this to Christians singing the National Anthem. If we pray, “God, please keep our land free”, and assuming that prayer is a Biblical one, we then also have an obligation (a Christian and a civic duty) to “stand on guard for” Canada, and in particular, to keep her free.
Freedom from or freedom for?
To begin, I ought to clarify what I mean by “free” and “freedom”. In a modern, liberal democracy, freedom is often equated with autonomy (literally, “self-law”), the right to do as I want, when I want. This is a relatively recent development in rights language, though it’s a phenomenon as old as sin (literally). This is not the type of freedom I mean, and most likely not the freedom that the original author of the national anthem, writing in 1880, had in mind either. Lord Acton, writing around the same time, said it well: “By liberty I mean the assurance that every man shall be protected in doing what he believes is his duty, against the influence of authority and majorities, custom and opinion.” Put another way, Acton wrote, “Liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.”
So, freedom and liberty, properly understood, come with a deep sense of responsibility or duty. And all citizens and lawmakers need a healthy respect and understanding for that sense of obligation or duty. It is perhaps partly because we (as a culture) have grown accustomed to a sense of liberty as doing whatever we want that we now shrug our shoulders when freedom is curtailed in the face of a pandemic. But it is especially during trying times that we need the freedom to do what we ought.
During this pandemic, all kinds of Christian duties have been curtailed in draconian ways: the duty to give tender care to aged parents, the duty to tend to the sick, the duty to visit and encourage the lonely, the duty to corporately worship and pray for our nation and city, the duty to comfort the mourning, the duty to love the orphan or foster child and their family, the duty to evangelize the neighbour, the duty to assist the new mother, the addict, the poverty-stricken, the mentally distressed. All of these joyous tasks given to Christians have been dramatically curtailed or outright forbidden. In much worse and deadlier pandemics in the recent past (Spanish flu in 1918-1919, Asian Influenza in 1957 and Hong Kong Influenza in 1968), these restraints were not imposed (except for limits on large-scale gatherings lasting at most three weeks). If a Christian wanted to risk their health or life to comfort a sick person, visit a lonely person, or assist a struggling person, they were permitted to do so. Today, if a Christian were to do so, they risk not only large fines but also vilification by Christians and non-Christians alike.
It’s difficult to determine the reason for this dramatic shift, but I suspect it has a lot to do with the massive expansion of the administrative (nanny) state over the past three or four generations. Generally, Canadians lift up their eyes unto the state from which their help comes. The Premier will keep you from all harm, the Chief Medical Officer will watch over your life, the by-law officers will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore. How many Christians too, look for the state to both protect them and to do the ministry of mercy which Christians ought to be doing?
Charter rights are being unjustifiably violated
So, is there anything an individual Christian can do about these intrusions into the ministry and witness of the church?
In Canada, everyone has the fundamental freedoms of religion, of peaceful assembly and of association, protected by section 2(a), 2(c), and 2(d) of the Charter. These freedoms should protect the ministry of the church described above. When the civil government infringes on Charter rights like freedom of peaceful assembly, the burden is on the civil government (not citizens) to demonstrate that the restrictions are justifiable in a free and democratic society.
How can the government demonstrate that? Let’s take Ontario as an example. Ontario’s government must show that its continuing shut-down of corporate worship services since March, and with no end in sight, is rationally connected to its objective of reducing COVID deaths and hospitalizations, and that the limits are minimally impairing of Charter freedoms – that is, that it limits our freedoms as little as necessary to substantially achieve its objective.
Could Ontario justify its ongoing strict measures in court? Other provinces have demonstrated their ability to manage with far less restrictive rules on public gatherings. Ontario has permitted businesses with large workforces to resume operations. It permitted large stores to remain open. Yet it continues to refuse to allow corporate worship (unless you count online services or drive-in services) in any form (e.g. allowing a church to host services at 1/3 building capacity and with extra hygiene measures in place). Indeed, it is my opinion that Ontario fails to meet this test.
What does Romans 13 look like in a constitutional democracy?
But what about Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17? Don’t these passages demand submission to the governing authorities? Yes, the general rule of Scripture is that Christians are subject to the governing authorities. But in order to make a proper application of this rule, we have to understand how our civil authorities govern. How citizens interact with governing authorities looks different in a constitutional democracy (where the constitution is supreme even over judges and premiers) than in an ancient absolute monarchy.
In a participatory democracy, it is not only the premier who gets to decide what the law requires. In fact, lawyers and judges, and police officers and citizens should all know what their rights and responsibilities are in law. We are all equally under law and ruled by law. This legal reality is a blessing of Christendom. The Magna Carta, which enshrined this concept over 800 years ago in English law, is rooted in Christian culture. Ambiguities, over-reach, constitutional violations, inequal application of the law, all of this needs to be winsomely exposed, and Christians ought not to shy away from this. It is good and right to point these injustices out.
Furthermore, the judiciary is also part of the civil government. When a citizen appeals to a judge to clarify whether or not the actions of the Premier are constitutional (i.e. legal), then this shows respect for the government and her institutions and uses the law to our advantage. Paul – who wrote Romans 13 – does this multiple times, when he uses his Roman citizenship status to avoid being flogged (Acts 22:22-29), when he demands that the local magistrate personally escort him and Silas out of jail after their rights had been violated (Acts 16:37-40) and when he appeals to Caesar (Acts 25:10-11).
Asserting Charter rights is not insubordination. As a Canadian citizen, you bear Charter freedoms. Making your case in court, as the law entitles you to do, is a lawful exercise of your office of citizenship. So there may be situations where both the civil government and the Christian citizen must justify their actions, the former in a courthouse and the latter before God.
What should make Christians distinct from their neighbours is not whether we speak up about our freedoms but how. Our tone of respect, our posture of prayer, and our spirit of submission sets us apart. And not only our tone, but also our philosophy of freedom and submission will shape a distinctly Christian approach on speaking up. Will we advocate for outright defiance, or make our case calmly and reasonably, according to law? I reject both the passivism of being totally and silently subservient to the State. This is not biblical (Ex. 1:15-21; Dan. 3:8-23; Dan. 6:5-10; Mark 12:15-17; John 19:11; Acts 4:18-20; Acts 5:17-42; Acts 16:37; 2 Cor. 11:32-33). And I reject the revolutionary spirit of obstinate civil disobedience.
The church can be a blessing to her country and city in times of prosperity. She will be a greater blessing to her country and city in times of adversity. She must be free to be that blessing in times of need. Paul writes to the Corinthians, “You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men.” (1 Corinthians 7:23). So, don’t just sit there. Stand. Stand on guard for Canada and make your voice one that helps keep Canada glorious and free.