The following is an article written by Dr. Joe Boot, friend of the network and Founding Pastor at large at Westminster Chapel in Toronto. It was originally written for the Gospel Coalition Canada, though the article was never used.
In mid-December of 2020 I received a kind email from The Gospel Coalition Canada about my views as a pastor regarding 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 due for release before the end of 2020.
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. Since the questions were important enough to ask, our friends at the Reformed Rebel Network asked if I would release them here with my responses and I agreed.
1. In recent days, you have begun advocating for churches to remain open despite provincial mandates. Why do you think now is the time to stay open, or what changed since the Spring?
I appreciate the opportunity to say something about these issues. Firstly, I have consistently advocated for the churches to be open since the Spring and have written extensively regarding my views on the lockdown crisis, so little has really changed from my perspective. My own church elders (Westminster Chapel – which I founded in 2008 and where I still serve as one of the pastors and elders) decided to cooperate with the very first shutdown around Easter (March 28 restricted gatherings to a five-person limit), because we believed that with all the confusion, panic and unknowns, it was reasonable to briefly give civil government the benefit of the doubt as the fog was clearing. We also felt that responsible care for our own church community meant having a chance to pause and evaluate the situation. As the historically unprecedented mass lockdown of healthy populations went on however, it became increasingly clear that over-reaching civil authorities had no intention of lifting restrictions placed upon churches, at which point another pastor and I launched a broad campaign to reopen Ontario churches which led to a critical meeting with government officials and by God’s grace contributed to a reopening of Ontario churches at 30% capacity.
At the end of the summer months during which many churches reopened (though many tragically stayed shut), rumours began circulating that a second lockdown was being planned. At this point some colleagues and I organised a meeting with a small group of church leaders, Christian lawyers and politicians to discuss how to respond in the event that a second lockdown of society (including churches) should be initiated. One of the takeaways from that meeting was the need for an ecumenical Declaration reasserting the historic understanding of church-state jurisdictional boundaries, the authority of Christ over His church and civil government, and the importance of defending the existing constitutional freedoms enjoyed by the church that have cost faithful Christians so dearly down the centuries. It should not be on our watch that the church abandons what Christian martyrs paid so dearly to secure. I had the privilege of drafting what we called the Niagara Declaration 2020 (in consultation with several others) in defense of the Lordship of Christ and the liberties of His church which several hundred churches have already signed and counting.
Nine months after the lockdown began in which we were told we were simply taking two weeks to ‘flatten the curve,’ it has become increasingly evident that the lockdown of the church and the rest of society has been unconstitutional. This is not merely the private opinion of a group of pastors; we are working with constitutional lawyers on this issue with Charter challenges coming soon. More to the point, it has been devastating for people’s well-being, their livelihoods and health, so acting now as a church’s has become, in my view, a matter of obedience to God which involves love for neighbor. In my opinion, now is the time to find ways to stay open in part as a simple act of mercy and humanity and in defense of people’s health and wellbeing.
Medically, much more is known now than in the Spring. Due to initial confusion over the fatality rates because of muddling case and infection fatality rates, we now know that the real fatality rate is less than half of one percent – about 0.2 – 0.3%. Over 82 seroprevalence studies from around the world in the last six months have confirmed a median fatality rate of 0.2%. We also now know that for children and young people, this novel coronavirus is much less dangerous than the common flu. We also know the disease is more dangerous than the flu for those over 70 years, most especially for people with several comorbidities, yet even in this age group 96% of people recover. The reality in Canada is that since this novel virus was declared a pandemic – and even taking into account the counting method of deaths ‘with’ not necessarily ‘from’ Covid-19 – a very small number of people across the nation under 60 have died with this disease. All deaths are tragic and to be mourned, but it is now clear that this disease is not a threat to the vast majority of the general working or student population. The average age of death from Covid-19 is actually greater than the national average life expectancy (82 years). In addition, lockdowns have proven to be devastating – the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms 2020 report highlights this. Rocketing suicide rates and mental health collapse, cancelled operations and screenings, missed immunization putting 80 million children at risk globally from other diseases, the economic devastation with hundreds of thousands of businesses destroyed, and perhaps most shocking, the UN estimating that lockdowns have plunged an additional 130 million people into abject poverty and starvation, mean that the death toll of lockdown is dwarfing the Covid-19 death toll, all on the basis of a draconian policy unsupported by clear evidence. You can imagine that these facts make arguments in support of lockdown which invoke ‘love of neighbor’ rather difficult for some of us to swallow.
2. What theological principles lie behind your decision?
Firstly, let me say that at this point I do not view churches meeting in contravention of recent provincial health mandates as an act of civil disobedience in its historic sense. Churches that continue to meet do not meet the threshold of civil disobedience. We believe it is these mandates that are unlawful. In a constitutional democracy such as we have in Canada citizens and organizations have the right and duty to hold our leaders accountable to the highest law of the land. There has been a lot of ‘proof texting’ and indeed misuse of Romans 13 in the ether (which I can’t expound here) criticizing or condemning the ‘civil disobedience’ of churches that decide to remain open for worship. Such condemnation is misguided and premature and reveals a misunderstanding of the doctrine of sphere sovereignty – which I will say more about shortly. One of the many gifts of Christianity to the West – specifically the Reformed branch – was that of political and social liberty, the rule of law and the development of accountable institutions where citizens participate in their own government. In our oppositional form of government with its division of powers and in which the ultimate legal authority is the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, citizens are not obliged to quietly obey every edict of the state bureaucracy. In fact, there are presently elected officials, active and retired police officers and constitutional lawyers openly standing against the lockdown measures in Canada. The Charter is not a perfect – and in some ways not an ideal – document, but it guarantees the fundamental freedoms of conscience, religion, expression, peaceful assembly and association. The current lockdown measures are unprecedented in their suspension of these fundamental rights and the lawfulness of these infringements is as yet untested in the courts. Furthermore, the mandates are not part of Federal criminal law. No one is getting a criminal record for resisting them. In representative government with democratic institutions, totalitarian and unjust measures are often not exposed until challenged and overturned by the courts. The German government has declared that the lockdown of churches is not possible for constitutional reasons; in England churches remain open despite the 2021 national lockdown following legal pressure over constitutional matters;and in the United States, the Supreme Court has now twice ruled in favor of churches and freedom of religion and assembly against lockdown measures imposed upon them by state governors and mayors. Despite Canada’s illiberal reaction compared even to Germany, this examples show how our system of government is meant to work and it is why we have three branches of civil government – legislative, executive and an independent judiciary. So, at this point I am not speaking theologically or politically of civil disobedience in its proper sense – I am not questioning the legitimacy of our current governmental authority. I am questioning the lawfulness of its actions in terms of the highest law of our land and in view of the law of God. So, it is more correct to speak of lawful disobedience at this point. Pastors may need to get more informed and start grappling with these issues accurately as pressure mounts. We have several legal resources available to us to help us continue to shepherd our flocks that many are not availing themselves of.
Secondly, a biblical world-and-life-view is informing my views and the decisions of churches resisting lockdown. Scripture must be interpreted with Scripture and so it is the whole counsel of God that we must consult on these issues, not isolated texts that we may be tempted to invest with whatever meaning we prefer. We urgently need a recovery of a biblical world-and-life-view in our churches. As pastors we have often studied our theology and biblical languages but have not thought through the relationship of the claims of Christ to culture. Scripture makes plain that Christ Jesus is the creator and ruler of all temporal authorities (Ps. 2; Ps. 110; Eph. 1:16-23; Col. 1:15-20; Rev. 1:5). God has created various spheres of life that have a delegated and limited authority (or sovereignty) – the most obvious areas being the family, church and state. Each is governed by the Word of God in terms of its own particular law. God’s law for the government of the family, the church and the state are distinct, and each has its own God-given jurisdiction and authority which if transgressed radically distorts God’s intention for creation, poisoning social relationships. The Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper called this biblical and creational principle, Sphere Sovereignty. So, for example, in Romans 13 the sphere of the state is emphatically placed under God as His servant to punish evil and reward righteousness – it is given sword power, the power of coercion. That this did not give human civil authority unlimited arbitrary power irrespective of God’s commands is clear from its limited task (as a ministry of public justice) and the fact that the apostle Paul spent so much time in prison! In Acts 4:18-19; 5:28-29 it is clear that our first duty is to obey God, so if the state forbids what God commands, or commands what God forbids, our duty is to obey God. Using Romans 13 to call for unquestioning or unqualified obedience to civil authorities is as bad as using Ephesians 5: 22-24 to teach wives should offer unqualified submission to an abusive husband.
The third theological principle at work in my thinking is that of obedience to God’s law-word. There can be no question that the present measures have indefinitely suspended the functional life of the church institute as a form of government under God – no one knows when the civil authorities will give ‘permission’ for the church to reopen. And yet the state has no more authority to unilaterally suspend the functioning of Christ’s sovereign rule over His church and our divine service to Him than it can suspend the functional life of the family. As a gift from God (Mark 2:27), we are commanded by the Lord to observe a sabbath rest forever and keep it holy until He comes (Ex. 20:8-11, 31:17; Ezek. 20:12; 1 Cor. 11:25-26). We are to gather around the Word and sacrament (Acts 2:42; 20:7) as the fundamentals of worship. The very word for church in the New Testament, ekklesia, conveys the central importance of our physical gathering. We are commanded not to give up meeting together (Acts 2:1; 20:7; Rom. 16:1-16; 1 Cor. 16:19-20; Heb. 10:24-25), and yes, it is a command, the Greek in Heb 10:24-25 carries an imperative force! After nine months of suspended and restricted worship, with no credible end in sight, can anyone say with a straight face that we are being obedient to these repeated commands when we close our doors, suspend worship and turn people away? We are commanded to baptise (Matt. 28:19-20), to lay hands on the sick (Mark 16:18) and if we ourselves are sick, we are to call for the elders of the church to anoint us with oil (Jas. 5:14). We are required to sing together, greet one another, care for one another and exercise church discipline (1 Cor. 5; 2 Cor. 13:12; Gal. 6:2; Eph. 5:19). How can any of these commands be obeyed if the functional life of the church institute is suspended? As pastors we have no right to flee or abandon our post because times are difficult. As Martin Luther wrote in a letter entitled Whether one may flee from a deadly plague:
Those who are engaged in a spiritual ministry such as preachers and pastors must likewise remain steadfast before the peril of death. We have a plain command from Christ, “A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep but the hireling sees the wolf coming and flees” (John 10:11). For when people are dying, they most need a spiritual ministry which strengthens and comforts their consciences by word and sacrament and in faith overcomes death.
Luther here is only supporting the historic conviction and practice of the church from the earliest centuries. In my view, in the face of the clear commands of Scripture, we must obey God before we slavishly obey the edicts of bureaucrats who frequently do not understand what they are doing. (Dan. 3:18; 6:10; Acts 5:29).
3. What else can churches do to allow their voices to be heard by the governing authorities?
I recently did a podcast on this very question which readers might be interested to listen to. There are actually several things we can and should do to respond to what is happening. The first is prayer because prayer is powerful. Bold, courageous, Satan-crushing prayers are part of God’s covenantal will for our lives and delight His heart. When we pray, God acts. Second, we can write letters. As citizens who elect the officials who represent us, we have the obligation to let them know what we think so that they can represent us authentically. They are public servants, ministers, not masters and dictators. In our system of government with the rule of law, we are duty bound to interpret the law ourselves and hold elected officials accountable as well as pray for them, that God would grant them wisdom. Thirdly we can protest. Again, peaceful assembly is a Charter Right; who can forget a few months ago seeing our own Prime Minister at a Black Lives Matter protest (as well as other officials and police officers) all in violation of lockdown orders and social distancing mandates. We have a much stronger reason for gathering in public to worship God and protest the shuttering of the churches. Finally, we can use the law of the land which formally acknowledges the supremacy of God to get involved in filing lawsuits with constitutional lawyers who share our deep concern for freedom, liberty, the rights of ordinary people to work and make a living, see their family, be at the bedside of a dying loved one and move around unimpeded by the state. All those who love our fragile and God-given inheritance of liberty should be concerned with the totalitarian drift of our culture, and we can do all these things in respectful and God-honoring ways that help advance the cause of the kingdom of God.
Dr. Joe Boot
 See: https://www.ezrainstitute.ca/resource-library/articles/covid-calamity-when-the-cure-is-worse-than-the-disease/ ; https://www.ezrainstitute.ca/resource-library/articles/the-cult-of-the-expert/ ; https://www.ezrainstitute.ca/resource-library/articles/the-way-is-shut-evangelical-compromise-and-the-illusion-of-virtual-church/ ; https://truthxchange.com/2020/04/coronavirus-government-overreach-and-christian-prophecy/  See: https://www.reopenontariochurches.ca  See: https://www.niagaradeclaration.ca  See Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms Report, https://www.jccf.ca/government-data-shows-lockdowns-more-deadly-than-covid-19/  See: https://www.lifesitenews.com/opinion/we-have-to-fight-back-doctor-lays-out-sensible-anti-covid-strategy  See: https://health-infobase.canada.ca/covid-19/epidemiological-summary-covid-19-cases.html  See: https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/45-28-0001/2020001/article/00087-eng.htm  See: https://www.politico.com/news/2020/08/13/cdc-mental-health-pandemic-394832  See: https://www.dw.com/en/coronavirus-germany-to-impose-one-month-partial-lockdown/a-55421241  See: https://christianconcern.com/news/legal-challenge-to-church-lockdown-will-continue-in-january/https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-guidance-for-the-safe-use-of-places-of-worship-during-the-pandemic-from-4-july/covid-19-guidance-for-the-safe-use-of-places-of-worship-from-2-december  See: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/supreme-court-church-lawsuit-california-lockdown-b1766021.html  For a fuller discussion of this principle see: https://www.ezrainstitute.ca/resource-library/articles/freedom-the-church-and-state-absolutism/  See: https://blogs.lcms.org/wpcontent/uploads/2020/03/Plague-blogLW.pdf  See: https://www.ezrainstitute.ca/resource-library/articles/following-the-footsteps-of-the-great-physician-healthcare-in-the-early-church/  See: https://www.ezrainstitute.ca/resource-library/podcast/responding-to-a-second-lockdown/  An example of the Toronto worship protest can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kFP8z-AoM08