Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Civilly Disobedient

“Then those who feared the Lord spoke with one another. The Lord paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the Lord and esteemed his name.”

We’re all doing it. You know you are.

In the Same Boat

If you live in an area that is well and truly locked down, you have probably discovered nobody is fully compliant with the latest city, provincial, state or federal edicts. The orders are just too ridiculous and inconsistent; moreover, they are too numerous and ever-changing to keep up with. Everybody is in the same boat. The minimum wage store clerks who look the other way when capacity is exceeded, and have left off enforcing anything. The office workers who agree to chuck the mandated masks because we have to hand each other paper all day long anyway. An eleventh relative smuggled into a wedding or funeral when the limit is ten. The compassionate doctor who escorts an entire family to the bedside of a dying woman when the provincial regs says two is the max. The church elder who lets a sweet senior citizen desperate for Christian contact exceed the 15%-of-capacity limit.

Would you turn her away? I know you wouldn’t. Do you ensure your mask covers your chin and nose at all times? Sure you do.

More Than the Gospel

In Sunday’s post, I laid out the biblical case for the occasional violation of the Romans 13 principle of submission to authority. If you weren’t convinced by the examples I gave, then multiplying cases probably won’t help, and this post may not be of much use to you. But even Paul, who wrote Romans 13, did not live in absolute subjection to the whims of rulers. And it wasn’t just when somebody came out and bluntly said, “No more of this preaching the gospel” that the early church failed to comply with the will of the powers-that-be. Paul’s own conduct shows the apostle believed self-preservation was an acceptable reason to evade the arm of the law. After all, you can’t make that very basic choice to obey God or men if you’re locked up or dead, can you?

And if self-preservation is an acceptable reason for non-compliance, there are surely other even better Christian reasons for it. Take, for example, the case of a neighbor in real need. Would you temporarily set aside the provincial distancing rules in order to babysit your neighbor’s children so their mother could visit her hospitalized husband? I hope you would think about it. If failing to comply with the wishes of the state is always a sin, it seems to me that refusing our Christian duties to our neighbors is a bigger one. Is it really in the spirit of Christ to prefer conformism to COVID protocols over the desperate situation of my neighbor? Is the small risk of passing on an infectious disease of greater importance than the actual evil of refusing to do good when the opportunity presents itself?

Other Situations

Or how about when a person comes from out of town, and has no place to stay, and a hotel is even more dangerous than a Christian home, and you take them in. Can we do that, or is would we be disobeying “the powers that be”? The question answers itself: surely Christian hospitality also trumps governmental edicts. Or what about elderly people: assuming they are willing to take the risk, is it Christian to hunker in our bunkers and leave them completely to themselves for a year and counting?

What about breaking bread with your fellow believers, teaching and preaching the word of God, prayer and fellowship? If the gospel is a good enough reason to violate a direct order, are these fundamental pillars of corporate Christian living sufficient reason to do so? I believe they are. Zoom-church is a poor substitute for real body life.

Insisting on granular obedience to every detail of every new arbitrary regulation, however well intended they may be, can easily become just a little bit like leaving your sheep in a pit on the Sabbath. A greater good is being ignored in favor of a lesser one.

One More Question

Now, not everybody in the North America is equally restricted from gathering. Florida and Texas are seating thousands at public events. I can’t say for sure, but Christians in those states are probably not banned from assembling to the extent Christians in Ontario are at the moment. Christians in rural situations generally have it easier than believers in urban centers. But my own local church has had its doors locked for over a year.

My concern is that many of my brothers and sisters in Christ don’t want to contend with this issue. They want to say, “The powers that be are ordained of God” and be done with it. They don’t want the burden of being proactive, of making decisions with which they know others may not agree.

So for those of us who have been locked down continuously from the regular practices of our corporate Christian lives for over a year, let me ask this final question: If you knew with certainty that this state of affairs was going to continue indefinitely into the future, would you do anything differently? And if not indefinitely, how long would you wait before returning to gathering the way Christians have always gathered, and living the way Christians have always lived? In what time frame are you willing to break a rule to do the right thing? And if you would be willing to do it then, why wouldn’t you do it now? What’s our metric?

I say we have already waited too long.

Humble, Reverent Disobedience

So should we be out in the streets protesting our rights? No, I don’t think so. I believe thoughtful, discreet, selective non-compliance is the way to go. There will be plenty of uncivil disobedience from the unsaved. There already has been. We have no established biblical pattern to follow for mass protesting (I don’t count Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego’s stand against worshiping idols as either “mass” or a “protest” really). But we definitely have examples of personal displays of courageous disobedience in bad times. Daniel comes to mind. And hey, sometimes you do get caught.

So comply when you can, violate when you have no choice, but don’t make a big deal about it. Don’t announce your non-compliance with bells, just quietly do what you have to.

Not every Christian is going to go for this notion initially, and that’s perfectly fine. A good conscience before the Lord is critical. Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. Feeling a little scared of being caught breaking a rule or of being publicly shamed is fine; feeling convicted of sinning against God is not. Those who believe freedom to worship in our usual way is right around the corner are welcome to wait and see. You can still join us in January.

And don’t stop complying with the rules just to indulge a contrarian streak or generate a little excitement in your life. You will correctly imagine I have to fight that impulse. But every act of disobedience toward an improperly-behaving lower authority needs to be first and foremost an act of obedience to a Higher Authority. Disobey, sure, but disobey humbly and reverently.

Toward More Effective Non-Compliance

So then, in no particular order, here are a few things useful to consider for Christians preparing to break the occasional rule in order to engage in the activities that are a normal part of our Christian lives. Even writing these ideas down right now feels a bit weird and paranoid, but if the lockdowns continue in your area into 2022, you may be glad you stopped to give non-compliance some serious thought.
  1. The first rule of Fight Club. The first rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club. (It was also the second rule, I think. I didn’t see the movie.) The first rule of violating anything repeatedly is doing it without telling everybody in your inner circle. What people don’t know they can’t inadvertently reveal.
  2. Forget church buildings. In fact, forget any big gatherings. We are better off meeting in cell groups in homes, as the early church did. Unless your church building is way out in the countryside, anything happening on church property will be carefully scrutinized. So keep your gathering small, by invitation only, and use it as an occasion for quiet hospitality. Six to ten people is more than enough, especially when the current limit is your own family plus one. Stand-alone houses are more discreet than semi-detached homes or townhouses, and apartments are pretty much a write-off.
  3. Don’t park near meeting places. Groups of cars are obvious. People on foot arriving at different times and using different entrances and exits are less noticeable. In my area, most fines for violating COVID regulations are the result of complaints from neighbors, not enforcement officers perpetually circling the block. In fact, it seems few officers tasked with enforcement are particularly keen on the job. But if they get a complaint, they will respond to it.
  4. Leave the cell phone at home. We all love to be tethered to our phones, but you are walking around with a GPS in your pocket. In Canada, the police can locate you almost instantly with your phone, or be running searches on your entire call and text message history in literally ten minutes. It doesn’t take a court order, and it’s the very first thing they do these days. So make your meeting arrangements when you are together. Don’t text them to one another. Save regular texting for people you don’t worship with. If you must carry a phone to meeting, get a burner from your local 7-11.
  5. Keep your groups as local as possible. We all have good reasons to be in our own neighborhoods. It’s a little harder to explain constant trips across town when the grocery stores are closed.
  6. Get off the internet. Some good news: when real, institutional persecution breaks out against the 21st century churches of the West, the powers-that-be won’t need to waterboard us to get a list of our accomplices. They already have all that data from our Facebook “friends” list, email and phone contacts. Maybe that’s the bad news. Anyway, don’t use technology to arrange meetings that violate COVID regs. If you get yourself caught and fined for something you believe in, that’s the cost of doing business. But you don’t want to be making that decision for others.
  7. Meet irregularly. Ten people walking up to a front door within a fifteen minute period every week at exactly the same time and place is really, really obvious. Vary your meeting times, vary up the places and stagger your arrivals. If possible, vary up your cell group membership from time to time. You’ll get to enjoy the fellowship of different believers while avoiding establishing observable patterns and connections.
  8. Have a cancel code. A one-word text will do, especially if you vary up the word from time to time. But if there are three police vehicles parked two doors down half an hour prior to your scheduled gathering or a nosy neighbor on the porch across the street, it may be a good idea to be able to call off your gathering on the fly.
  9. Forget singing in places where it can be easily heard. I know music is an integral part of the “gathering” experience. It’s also really obvious, and hymns are not easily mistaken for any other kind of music.
  10. Leaders get their heads chopped off. The quickest way for the authorities to end any movement considered undesirable is to identify the people promoting it and lock them up. Don’t laugh, it’s already happening. Canadian pastor James Coates recently spent 35 days in jail for defying COVID‑19 restrictions before most of us even knew he was there. The solution is not to have recognizable leadership. So if I make a suggestion, you go along or don’t as you see fit, and vice versa. Don’t make your elders do all the heavy lifting unless you plan on putting up their bail money.
  11. Stop signing up for services. Contact tracing is giving government the convenient excuse to ask for information to which they have no right. If your church submits a list of all service attendees to the city, province or state, it’s time to start considering whether you would be better off worshiping in a cell group in a home. If your in-person attendance at a church meeting begins with logging in online to book your seat, well ... stop.
  12. Carefully consider YouTube outreach. Anything posted to YouTube is as forever as the powers-that-be want it to be. There are seniors who will never be able to join us in-person again, and YouTube and Zoom enable us to reach them in a way that blesses and encourages them. But consider carefully what you upload into these open forums. They are not neutral territory. Anything that might be considered subversive or controversial is better communicated during an in-person visit than over the internet. And bear in mind that your average teenager needs teaching a lot more vigorous and practical to grow in Christ than anything you are able to put up on YouTube.
  13. Teach the children well. When I was growing up, most Christian families did morning devotions with their children. I believe the practice is not as common anymore. If you have been relying on Sunday School teachers and youth group leaders to familiarize your children with the word of God, now is the time to start teaching them at home. First and foremost, this is dad’s job, but in homes where the father is unsaved or not present, there can be great benefit if mom or grandma steps up.
Getting Ready for Bad Times

You can probably think of a bunch of things I’ve missed, but the more we get out there and actually do it, the more we’ll learn about how to disobey discreetly and effectively.

Hey, if I’m wrong about lockdowns, limits and rules going on and on interminably, we won’t need these suggestions. That would be great. But I still think figuring out now how to violate anti-biblical restrictions quietly and effectively if necessary is a sensible exercise to engage in. If we don’t need the practice today, we’ll definitely need it down the road. 

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