GraceLife Church has been in a standoff with Alberta health authorities for a few months now. The church has been quietly meeting for near-normal Sunday worship since June of 2020. In a public statement, released on February 7, the church explains its stance and appeals to fellow Albertans. Recently, things have escalated, leading to the arrest of the lead preaching pastor, James Coates. As I write, he is still in custody because he cannot, in good conscience, agree to the conditions set for his release.

I understand that I am about to address the most heated and divisive issue of our day. I have seen many people come out in support of Pastor James and GraceLife. They, like me, are deeply disturbed by the injustice and governmental overreach represented by the imprisonment of a faithful pastor. However, you may be on the other side: shocked that a church would not comply with the health mandates. “How unloving! Don’t you care that people are dying from this virus?” If so, you’re reading the right article. It is this objection, that meeting for worship is unloving, that I aim to address here.

The argument that we must sacrifice our freedom for the sake of loving our neighbours is a weighty one. I feel it. For many, it seems obvious that giving up our rights of free assembly and worship is the only loving thing to do.  However, I think this view that equates “stay home and stay safe” with “love your neighbour” is rather shallow. We need to re-evaluate what love looks like by digging a bit deeper. Life is complex, so we cannot be reductionistic in our thinking. Both the facts of the situation and the values relevant to it must be carefully weighed in discerning the loving thing to do. If you consider both, I hope you will better understand GraceLife’s stance.

“… we believe love for our neighbor demands that we exercise our civil liberties. We do not see our actions as perpetuating the longevity of COVID-19 or any other virus that will inevitably come along. If anything, we see our actions as contributing to its end – the end of destructive lockdowns and the end of the attempt to institutionalize the debilitating fear of viral infections. Our local church is clear evidence that governmental lockdowns are unnecessary. In fact, it is also evidence of how harmful they are.” –GraceLife Church Public Statement of February 7

The Facts: Propaganda and Perspective

There is much debate about the facts. Do the facts regarding this virus warrant the government lockdown measures? One of the problems with addressing the facts is that they are rarely presented with neutrality. Rather, they are used as a tool, or even an ideological weapon.

“The media has so pounded the COVID-19 drum since the ‘pandemic’ began, almost exclusively emphasizing caseload and deaths, that people are fearful…The media should be made up of the most thorough, discerning, and investigative people in our society. Instead, many of them seem to be serving an ideological agenda. Now more than ever, it is vital that Albertans exercise discernment when listening to the mainstream media.” – GraceLife Church Public Statement of February 7

The motivations for media malpractice in a time of crisis are numerous. Bad news gets our attention. It sells, and people are always eager to provide a market. “Panic porn” is big business. We have been spoon-fed it for an entire year, constantly reminded of every case and every death. Just imagine if the same thing was done for lung cancer or car accidents. We might think twice about that cigar or that road trip! As for ideological bias in the mainstream media, if that is not already clear to you, I would only ask that you take a closer look.

Government health officials and politicians are also susceptible to bias when laying out the facts. Information provided by official health experts must always be taken with care and scrutiny. Officials will inevitably present facts in a way that supports their own actions. Press briefings are not just a “neutral” presentation of facts, they are a defense of current and proposed policies. There is nothing inherently wrong or unexpected about this, but it is problematic when the only cross-examiners are the panic-stoking media.

Once we have the facts of the situation, we cannot stop there. We must also understand the context and evaluate how well facts fit the narrative. Case numbers matter, fatality numbers matter, but they must be put in perspective.

We must look at history to see how this disease, and our response, compares to what has happened in the past. While our response to this virus is without historical precedent, the severity of the contagion is certainly not.

When looking at the virus statistics, we need to see them in the context of other measures of population health such as fatality rates from other causes. These numbers, which help bring perspective, are rarely presented along with COVID-19 stats. One statistic to consider is that the average age of COVID-19-related death in Alberta (82 years old) is entirely consistent with average life expectancy.

We must also look at the many harms caused by lockdowns. Our response to this virus has come at great cost to many – financially, mentally, and physically. It is not only those vulnerable to the virus that we must be concerned about loving. But even considering those most at risk to the disease, the very elderly, the situation is not as simple as it seems. Is protecting them from the virus the only goal to be achieved at all costs? Is subjecting them to such prolonged isolation in the final years of their lives really the loving thing to do?

The facts, put in a proper situational and historical context, cause me to suspect that our response to this virus has been very disproportionate and, indeed, harmful. It has not been the most loving response.

The Values: Expensive Freedom

“Churches should open, businesses should open, families and friends should come together around meals, and people should begin to exercise their civil liberties again. Otherwise we may not get them back…living life comes with risks. Every time we get behind the wheel of a car, we are assuming a degree of risk. We accept that risk due to the benefits of driving. Yes, though vastly overblown, there are associated risks with COVID-19, as there are with other infections.” – GraceLife Church Public Statement of February 7

Our opinions and actions must not only be informed by bare facts, but also by what we most value. I fear we have become a society that values its comfort and safety more than liberty. We would rather live in safe servitude than risky freedom.

We’ve all heard the expression “you reap what you sow.” This is a general principle in life that applies to many situations, including this one. We get what we pay for. If we want something that is worth a lot, we will need to count the cost.

Servitude isn’t worth much. It is undesirable. But, that also means it is inexpensive. It doesn’t require much effort. It is easy to achieve and easy to maintain. Freedom is valuable. It is something to be desired. But, that also means it is expensive. It requires us to pay a price; to make sacrifices. It is difficult to achieve and difficult to maintain. We cannot expect to have something as valuable as freedom without paying for it. We can only reap what we have sown.

Past generations paid the price necessary for our freedom. They paid with life and livelihood; they sacrificed comfort and ease. They accepted risk and valued freedom over safety. We have forgotten the cost. Will we continue to cover the bill? Will I dare to pay the price – the price of risk – for my grandchildren’s liberty? Dear friends, will you write this cheque for freedom that your grandchildren will cash? Do not wait. One day, holding them in your arms, you will realize that you are willing to pay, but it may be too late. Every generation must take up the cause of liberty, not just for its own sake, but also for the sake of the next. Give unto others, as generations past have given unto you. This is the loving thing to do.

The Hope of True Liberty

“Human life, though precious, is fragile. As such, death looms over all of us. That is why we need a message of hope. One that addresses our greatest need. That message is found in Jesus Christ.” – GraceLife Church Public Statement of February 7

True liberty is the freedom to do what is right. It is the freedom to love God and love our neighbours. It is freedom from sin and freedom from the fear of death and judgement. This freedom can only come through the Gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

This reality heightens the value of exercising this particular freedom; gathering for worship. It is when the Church gathers that this Gospel is preached, and God is given the worship due to Him. It is when the Church gathers that believers are built-up and can spur one another on towards love and good deeds. To gather is right, it is good, it is essential, and it is the loving thing to do.