COVID-19: The Limits of Control and Civil Disobedience

If we begin to see overreach – that is, if reasonable social distancing rules are used as a platform to exercise unwarranted control over the lives of citizens – we should all be concerned.

The daily glut of information on offer is a challenge to sift through, much less deeply engage with. I’ve been trying to stay tuned-in, to read as widely as possible, and process my thoughts here, publicly, to see if I can move the conversations we need to have in a positive direction. Here’s what I’m pondering today.

The Limits of Control

When it comes to the enforcement of recently enacted laws, if we begin to see overreach – that is, if reasonable social distancing rules are used as a platform to exercise unwarranted control over the lives of citizens – we should all be concerned. 

And what we seem to be seeing is a growing number of examples of over-enforcement of rules that aren’t exactly clear in the first place. People are being fined or threatened with fines for shooting hoops alone in a public park, having a social-distancing birthday parties from their cars, and a host of other examples. 

This is concerning because of its downstream consequences. If you ticket people for “creative compliance” there will be a cratering of morale in the population, and this will have widespread negative impacts. In addition you run the risk of angry citizens throwing their hands in the air in frustration and pushing back. We are beginning to see this happen and, obviously, it is not a good development.

Civil Disobedience

While in my previous post I stated that as Christians it is our desire and duty to obey, respect, and comply with those in authority over us, civil disobedience cannot be taken off the table of options. At the same time, the bar for civil disobedience must be set very high. Kyle Borg, in a post at Gentle Reformation, explains:

“There are times when as Christians we need to disobey our governing authorities (see Acts 5:29). But it is only when they require us to be disobedient to God — when the only way we can obey them is to be unfaithful to God. For the Christian, civil disobedience doesn’t arise out of patriotic flag waving while holding the Bill of Rights; it doesn’t arise out of anti-government sentiment or political leanings; it doesn’t arise because we’re inconvenienced by the law or draconian measures; it doesn’t arise out of some macho sense of being able to stick it to the man. For the Christian the only motivation for civil disobedience is a deep biblical conviction that obedience to man would be disobedience to God.”

Case Study

The in-progress case of civil disobedience  by a local church in my hometown – and the town where I currently pastor – is an interesting case study. The pastor of this church, Henry Hildebrandt, has determined that the threshold has been met and has decided to hold services in defiance of the authorities.

Anyone is free to comment, but if you are a Christian – and especially if you are a church leader reading this – where are you at in weighing the evidence for and against the justification for civil disobedience at this time? I’d love to discuss this with you. Leave a comment or send an email below or comment below the article on Facebook or send me a private message there.


Have your say:

(Header photo by Anastasiia Chepinska on Unsplash)

COVID-19: Should This Aylmer Pastor Be Breaking the Law?

If we are truly concerned that people in their cars with their windows rolled up are a threat to stopping the spread of COVID-19, how are we not horrified that 300m down the road many people are mingling out in the open with no barriers between them whatsoever, except the one sheet of plexiglass at the checkout? – Michael Krahn (About page)

Here is what’s happening right now in my hometown of Aylmer, Ontario. (Pictured above: Pastor Henry Hildebrandt of The Church of God)

An infectious disease is spreading through the world. It is highly contagious and there is no cure. It is so serious, in fact, that we are taking extreme measures to reduce the spread. As a result, many new restrictions are in place.

Creative Compliance
Last weekend, a local church gathered for worship in an unusual way. They drove into the parking lot just as they normally would on any other week, but this week they stayed in their cars the whole time with the windows rolled up so there was no chance of spreading the disease. While they were gathered they listened to a live sermon preached onsite via FM radio. This sounds like what we might call “creative compliance”: the goal of the restrictions is met and the church is still able to have some semblance of a gathering.

But in a demonstration of just how serious we are about stopping the spread of this disease, the police showed up to let these people know that this was a dangerous and illegal activity they should not engage in. (This is no knock on the police, who are simply doing their best to enforce the laws that have been made.)

[UPDATE/CORRECTION: In speaking to a church representative I was informed that the police did not show up at the actual service. According to this church leader, the church had been working in cooperation with the local police and had permission to meet in this way. Then on Monday they received notice that they were in violation and if they met the same way again this coming Sunday action would be taken.]

Fair enough – it seems a bit extreme, but we have all accepted that it’s just the world we live in right now.

Another world entirely, apparently, exists about 300m away from this church parking lot. The local grocery store also has a parking lot and many people park there every day. But nobody shows up to warn them not to do so.

But wait, there’s more! These people don’t even stay in their cars. They open their doors and get out of their cars. They then grab a shopping cart and enter the building. Inside the building they grab the groceries they need, together with plenty of other people who are doing the same.

But wait, everyone is wearing masks and being careful to stay six feet apart, right? On staying six feet apart, yes, people seem to be doing their best, but the last time I visited this store I didn’t see a single mask.

Is This Disease Serious or Not?
And all of this begs some questions: Is this disease serious or is it not? And should the pastor of this church, Henry Hildebrandt, break the law and encourage his congregation to meet again the same way next Sunday?

But wait – you say – the grocery store has been designated an essential service and the church has not. Ok, but does that mean there is blanket immunity available on location at these essential businesses? It’s like we’re being told not to gather in groups of more than five – unless you’re at an establishment that has been deemed an essential service. Then it’s free range! Like a city under a protective bubble.

In other words, if we are truly concerned that people in their cars with their windows rolled up are a threat to stopping the spread of COVID-19, how are we not horrified that 300m down the road many people are mingling out in the open with no barriers between them whatsoever, except the one sheet of plexiglass at the checkout?

The incongruence is a little too stark for us to ignore.

The Nature of Church
As Christians we believe that the Bible calls us to regularly meet together in person (Hebrews 10:25).  A church family is like an extended biological family. It requires the presence of others to maintain its vitality.

Because of COVID-19 we’ve been asked not to meet and an overwhelming majority of churches have complied with that order. We believe that God is pleased with our compliance as we seek to love our neighbours by taking reasonable precautions to not do them harm. And we will continue to do so unless it becomes apparent that the orders are actually being used to prevent our gatherings in a targeted way. It seems Pastor Henry Hildebrand believes that’s what’s already happening, which is why his church is defying the order.

To be clear, it is our desire as followers of Jesus to respect and submit to those in authority over us because we believe they have been placed in authority over us by God (Romans 13:1). But we also believe that this authority is delegated to them by God and it is therefore not absolute in their hands. God’s authority is absolute, and when human leaders use their delegated authority to unjustifiably discourage what God commands, Christians are obligated to speak up. 

Most Christians I know do not believe that faith communities are being intentionally targeted with these laws, but with a few more incidences like this one that is bound to change.

We must find ways to allow for this kind of creative compliance. If we don’t, we run the risk of giving the appearance that these laws and their enforcement are both targeted and arbitrary. So let’s have this conversation before we get to that point.

Feel free to get in touch…


Taste-testing the Daily COVID-19 Expert Opinion Buffet

We are offered a daily buffet of expert opinions, and in many cases these opinions are in conflict. So wisdom must be applied to our listening.

Asking the Right Questions

Here we are, weeks deep into a pandemic, and many decisions have been made. How did we come to those decisions? Are the decisions we’ve made the very best decisions? Do they protect the maximum number of people from dying from COVID-19 while also providing livable conditions for everyone? Is the relevant demographic data being taken into account?

For example, as reported in the Toronto Sun last week,  “Provincial health data shows those over age 80 account for just 19.6% of all cases but 64% of all deaths. Age 60 and over accounts for 42.8% of all cases and 93.7% of all deaths.”

If those 60 and over accounted for 93.7% of traffic fatalities, would we pull everyone off the road or would we look for ways to address, specifically, drivers who are 60 and over? Traffic isn’t an infectious disease, of course, so the comparison has its limits, but this is certainly worth thinking about.

Isolating everyone over 60 would have its challenges, but those challenges can’t possibly be greater than trying to isolate everyone when you consider the present and future economic toll of the extreme measures that have been taken.

Or how about this: “One study that got a lot of attention last week came out of Stanford, and suggests that the number of people who caught the COVID virus may have been 50 to 80 times higher than we thought. This likely means that the disease was much more contagious than was thought, that it was much less deadly than was thought, and that we actually may be coming down the other side of the curve, rather than climbing up the threatening slope.”

These ideas are worth thinking about because we are all (hopefully) more interested in preserving human life than we are about being right or sticking it to people on the other side of the political spectrum. 

Applying Wisdom

We are offered a daily buffet of expert opinions, and in many cases these opinions are in conflict. So wisdom must be applied to our listening. As my friend Aaron Rock wisely said recently,

“If you blindly ‘trust the experts’, and the experts are deluded by the Enemy, filled with sin, or without a discernible moral compass, you run the risk of endorsing decisions that have morally catastrophic implications. Likewise, when you quickly dismiss the experts as corrupt and thoroughly untrustworthy, you may fail to see God guiding them for the common good.”

COVID-19: Compliance and the Thinking Christian

Neither “doing as we’re told” without asking questions, nor “doing what we want” in defiance of the authorities is an option for the thinking Christian. And neither course of action will bring this crisis to a harmonious conclusion.

A Couple of Clarifications

First, I have not communicated clearly or often enough about my appreciation for those who are working on the front lines of this pandemic. So let me start by saying a big thank you to those who continue to faithfully serve during this time! While the rest of us are avoiding COVID-19 like the plague (which, you know, it kind of is…) you are not able to keep your distance. This is very good work that demands a level of self-sacrifice that we all appreciate.

Second, if I have not made my views on the reality and seriousness of COVID-19 clear enough, let me do so now. In a post last week I said that, “COVID-19 is real. People are dying because of it and we should do what we can to mitigate its effects.” I still believe that and I agree that people need to comply with all reasonable social distancing orders.

Intelligent Compliance

While I will continue to encourage this, I will also continue to encourage intelligent, and not merely blind, compliance. Neither “doing as we’re told” without asking questions, nor “doing what we want” in defiance of the authorities is an option for the thinking Christian. And neither course of action will bring this crisis to a harmonious conclusion.

God’s word tells us to honour, pray for, and be subject to our leaders (Rom. 13:1; 1 Pet. 2:17), but there are also limits to our compliance, as we see in Acts 5:29. This means that we cannot and should not blindly accept the doctrine of either side of the debate that is currently raging in the public square. Instead, we must examine the truth of scripture, apply that truth to the public debate and our own actions, and then leave the consequences to God.

At What Cost?

Many decisions have been made these last months based on the goal of minimizing the number of deaths and, of course, we all want to minimize COVID-19-related deaths. The question is at what cost? It may sound callous to think of this in terms of cost-benefit analysis, but in reality that is what everyone on all sides of this debate is doing. Some believe the overall human and economic cost of shutting everything down will be less than the cost of taking a more blended approach. Others believe the opposite.  

Leaders and policy-makers have to make decisions on a daily basis about minimizing death in a wide array of scenarios. As a society we have decided on many issues (automobile safety, for example), and even with COVID-19, that some number of deaths is tolerable – or at least inevitable – in order to preserve civil liberties and the minimal functioning of our society. 

How to Knock Out COVID-19 Completely

Think of it this way: if we really wanted to knock COVID-19 out completely, wouldn’t the best solution be for every individual to stay isolated in a locked room with a bathroom, emerging only to eat food that is delivered by someone in a hazmat suit that has been certified non-COVID?

We all agree that’s a ridiculous scenario, right? And we all agree that doing nothing is equally ridiculous. So between those two extremes we have to decide on the right path. And we should most certainly not be afraid to wrestle with different ideas, concepts, and proposals. If we really want to seek the welfare of the nation in which we live (Jer. 29:7), we will enter into reasonable and intelligent debates about massive decisions that have both short-term and long-term implications.  

George Orwell, COVID-19, and the War Metaphor

As examples of over-enforcement multiply and as we see snitch lines and people’s willingness to use them, we may want to take one giant step back, turn our heads side to side with our eyes open, and observe what seems to be happening around us. As I said in a post last week, “with the penchant for sensationalism on the part of some of the media, and the lust for attention and control on the part of some of our politicians, there may very well be aspects of this crisis that are being overstated. And some may be positioning themselves for greater access to the levers of power once the crisis has abated.” And so, “careful inquiry is always warranted in unusual times when people stand to gain anything, and in the midst of this crisis there are those who see opportunities for improper gain.” Since I wrote that, my optimism about government over-reach has faded significantly. I’ve been thinking a lot about the limits of obedience in the context of Romans 13, which, taken (as it always should be) along with the rest of scripture, does not advocate absolute obedience to the state. This means we should not simply “do what we’re told” in every circumstance. When those in authority attempt to leverage a crisis to expand their control over those under their authority, we should not hesitate to speak up.  

The War Metaphor

And so we should be alarmed when we read words like these from a recent editorial in the Globe and Mail that bluntly states, “Canada is at war. It’s a war that is going to be costly, though how costly is impossible to say. It may also be long.” If we are going to swallow this suggestion whole we should expect some indigestion in the near future. This quote from George Orwell’s novel 1984 seems timely: “[T]he consciousness of being at war, and therefore in danger, makes the handing-over of all power to a small caste seem the natural, unavoidable condition of survival.”

Follow Intelligently, Not Blindly

As we continue to discern both the obligations and limits of what we are told in Romans 13, let’s watch and follow intelligently but not blindly. Ultimate authority resides with God’s word and not the words of men – regardless of how much delegated authority they wield. If, under threat of punishment, we fail to speak the truth of God’s word at a time when it is most needed, we and everyone around us will pay a steep price. Let’s continue to obey God in all things, including these words: “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior…” – 1 Timothy 2:1-3 While blind obedience will not do, neither will the complete lack of respect for our leaders I have seen in so many social media posts. Strive to find the balance between blind obedience and sinful disrespect; one is not better than the other.

Who Will Save Us From This Pandemic?

When the pandemic ends, when the cure is found, when the world is busy telling us who the true heroes of the story are, will we find ourselves worshipping at the altar of human achievement or bowed in reverence to the God who heals our diseases?

Our daily struggle between faith in God and faith in human ability has been magnified by our current crisis. Never in our lifetimes has there been such a powerful universal sense of helplessness and great efforts are being made to subdue this unwanted feeling.

We do thank God that work is being done to find a cure, but while we wait we might be tempted to think that the fate of the world rests in the hands of politicians and of those working hard in labs everywhere. We might even think that if we could just throw more people and money at the problem, a great human achievement might come about.

But overcoming this crisis is not ultimately dependent on human intelligence, effort or ingenuity. And if we think it is, we are in great danger of tripping over our own pride right into the next available ditch.

Not By Numbers But By Faith

In Judges 7 Gideon assembles a significant fighting force to come against the army of another nation. He’s done his homework. He knows the numbers and figures he has the resources to defeat the opposition. But then God says this: “The people with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel boast over me, saying, ‘My own hand has saved me.’” – Judges 7:2 (ESV)

God sees a danger in all of this human calculation. God sees that if Gideon wins by the numbers, his men will be tempted to think that their human power and effort were what mattered most. Their faith in themselves will be strengthened instead of their faith in God.

So God reduces Gideon’s army to a fraction. He does this so they will have no reason to boast of their own strength. And Gideon goes along, showing his faith in God’s power. When they defeat their enemies it will be obvious to everyone that the power behind the victory was not of human origin. It will be obvious that God’s power won the battle.

Action Still Required

And yet Gideon’s men still engage the fight; human effort is still involved. Could God win the battle without them? Yes, of course. So why doesn’t he? We might ask the same questions about COVID-19. Why did God allow COVID-19 to spread in the first place? Could he cure it in an instant? And if he can, why doesn’t he?

These are questions worth exploring, but while we are exploring them let’s not neglect to notice that among all the other good that God is bringing about through this crisis, he is also presently working through human beings to bring this disease to an end. And the people God is working through, many of whom do not understand (or perhaps, even believe) this are probably filled with a great sense of purpose right now. How much more, then, would those God is working through who DO understand this be filled with a sense of purpose, honour and gratitude that the Creator of the universe saw fit to use their efforts in the process?   

When God includes us in his work we are filled with faith and confidence. What greater source of confidence could we have than to know that the God who created and rules over everything fights for us? And yet we often succumb to fear and try to fight these battles with only our own power. God desires for us to know that we can’t save ourselves. Not only does he desire for us to know, he sees to it that we are often reminded.

A Reminder

Consider the current crisis his latest reminder. When we come to the end of this pandemic, we will most certainly be tempted to say, “Our own hands have saved us!” That would be an enormous mistake. When the pandemic ends, when the cure is found, when the world is busy telling us who the true heroes of the story are, will we find ourselves worshipping at the altar of human achievement or bowed in reverence to the God who heals our diseases?

Perhaps he is waiting for us to humble ourselves, recognize our own inadequacy in fighting this virus, and cry out to him to do what only he can do. Are we willing to do that?

COVID-19: The Cost of Overreacting

Several disclaimers before we get started. COVID-19 is real. People are dying because of it and we should do what we can to mitigate its effects. But approaching this with an “even if it saves one life we should do it” mentality is too simplistic. Action and reaction – if by saving one life you put another in danger, what is the right choice?

So I want to draw your attention to a couple of pieces I read yesterday that I would describe as “forcefully responsible” questioning about what is currently happening with the government’s responses to COVID-19.

The Overreaction

The first was by Denny Burk, who asks, “Are policy-makers ‘encouraging mass civil disobedience’?”  Go take a look. I think he has a point. He quotes an article in the Wall Street Journal: “Decrees like those from the Michigan Governor’s office and their capricious enforcement run the risk of encouraging mass civil disobedience that will undermine the point of the orders.”

I’m seeing this here in Ontario, Canada as well. I know of a church that put a lot of thought, planning, and promotion into their drive-in Easter service, only to be given a big thumbs-down by the authorities a few days before the event. Why? If everyone stays in the their family units in their vehicles with the windows up, why can’t we do this? Millions of people are still hitting the McDonalds drive-thru every day. None of the workers I’ve seen in my town are wearing masks. Are they in yours? So if millions of people can interact within six feet of each other without face shields, why can’t a couple of hundred people park in the same place inside their sealed family vehicles?   

We are told not to go to beaches, even though beaches would seem a natural refuge in a time like this – a place with wide walking spaces where we always keep our distance from others anyway. My family was warned about an $800 fine for going to the beach last weekend as we were stepping out of our vehicle about half a kilometre from the beach! We had no intention of walking on the beach, and since there was an OPP officer in a cruiser posted at the entrance, there was no chance we were going to modify our intentions.

People are cooped up and isolated. The mental health impacts will be far reaching and long-term. We can mitigate those effects by reasonably allowing – perhaps even encouraging – people to get outside and enjoy nature. 

Post-Game Analysis?

The second post I read was by Doug Wilson, who always titles his posts so delightfully. This one was called “This Shambling and Shameful and Shambolic Shamdemic.” 

Explaining how all of this might be called a “shamdemid” he explains that:

“What I mean is the vast discrepancy between what has actually happened and what we were assured would happen. That discrepancy is the sham. Draconian actions were taken on the basis of these representations, and that is why the discrepancy is a hot issue. What the computer modeling experts predicted has not come to pass in any way that even remotely resembled their predictions, and which were treated as hard predictions by the politicians and decision-makers. And it cannot even be said that the computer modeling scare made us undertake certain heroic mitigation efforts necessary that would avert the predicted disaster because the models included mitigation efforts.” 

That last sentence is massively important. To be clear, he’s not saying that there aren’t surges in some places. He isn’t saying people aren’t dying or that COVID-19 is imaginary. He’s saying that the earlier apocalyptic predictions, based on models that took mitigation efforts into account, were not even close to accurate.

And on these models decisions were made that are causing chaos in the world economy. And if you care about lives, you need to concern yourself with the economy. I’ve heard many people express the thought that “it’s better to overreact than to under-react.” This is true for some scenarios and false for others. We might all wear masks when we go out in public, and maybe this isn’t absolutely necessary, but there isn’t a lot of downside to doing so. On the other hand, if you overreact when it comes to the economy, things could get dark very quickly. It is well-documented that alcohol consumption and suicide rates increase during times of economic recession. 

There is a cost to overreacting. We need to take that cost into account when shaping our present responses. Some studies have found that for every 1% increase in unemployment there is an equal increase in suicide rates. The unemployment rate in Canada rose 2.2% from February to March of this year. According to the numbers, that’s an extra 800+ deaths by suicide this year in Canada, and the unemployment numbers are going to go up quite dramatically in the coming month.

Call to Action

What’s my call to action here? Don’t follow blindly, follow intelligently. Look at a wide variety of views on the crisis. Discuss and debate. And as you’re doing all of that, don’t succumb to the fear and panic and anxiety that you see around you. Even if all the worst predictions come true,  all of God’s promises will still also be true. We still have hope and faith and love. That should cause us to love our neighbours and to love the truth – all truth. Even the truth about this crisis and our reasonable response.