In our last two Sunday worship services I’ve mentioned Pastor Tim Stephens in some fashion (once in a prayer and another time in a sermon application point). Pastor Tim was arrested last week for organizing and leading an outdoor worship service for his Calgary congregation.
I’m going to continue to bring his name up in prayer on Sunday, so it’s natural to ask, “Why would he get that much attention?” We’re not formally affiliated with his church (Fairview Baptist Church) and none of us know him personally. So, why the attention? Let me provide a few reasons:
First, his suffering affects me emotionally and I think it is right that we all share some grief over his situation. He’s a brother in Christ that is suffering. His wife and children are fellow Christians that are suffering. Seriously, if you don’t have a heart for this brother then just watch his arrest RIGHT HERE. It’s sickening to watch this good man get arrested while his children sob in the background.
Second, his suffering is unjust and God cares about justice. The highest law of Canada’s land is actually being violated by this arrest. Similar to the US constitution, Canada’s laws permit the free exercise of religious assembly. And Pastor Tim’s attempts to be heard in court to redress these “health” restrictions have not been honored. The officers who arrested him have taken an oath to defend their constitution and should be ashamed of themselves for acting on unjust orders. We need to pray that actual justice is done and Pastor Tim is vindicated.
Third, Pastor Tim’s suffering is a witness to the importance and identity of Christ’s church. Pastor Tim’s decision to assemble his church is a decision influenced by the command of the Lord Jesus to gather for worship (Hebrews 10:24-25). Not only this, but the word “Church” literally means, “assembly”. A church that never “assembles” is not a church. Assembling is something we do as part of our identity. Pastor Tim is making decisions that honor the Lord’s definition of what a church is and what a church does. It helps us to see that there are brothers out there that really believe God’s word on this point and are willing to suffer in order to remain faithful to that word.
Fourth, Pastor Tim’s suffering is a witness to Christians who do not understand how the Bible defines our relationship to civil authorities. It has been common in this past year to quote passages like Romans 13 in order to justify abiding by any and every restriction and mandate imposed on the church, even when those restrictions are often imposed because of the influence of unelected “experts”.
But actually, Romans 13 doesn’t apply in the way that many people think it does at first glance. First of all, we live under a different government than the Romans did. In other words, the highest authority in our land is actually a Constitution that’s written in black and white. So, when our human authorities get carried away and ignore it – we are obligated to submit to our constitution – not the toad who’s telling us that, somewhere in Romans, the apostle Paul said we have to submit to him. Second, Romans 13 actually tells us that human authority is established by God to enforce justice and punish the wrong-doer. And who defines what justice is? Who defines who a wrong-doer is? I’ll give you a hint. It’s not the government.
But, once the pedestrian interpretation of Romans 13 (and 1 Peter 2 shortly thereafter) unravels like overcooked pasta someone will say, “But didn’t even Jesus say, ‘Render unto Caesar?” So glad you brought this up my hypothetical objector. Yes. He does. In Matthew 22. Allow me a couple observations on that passage: 1. This is a discussion about taxes – not the authority of the state to impose restrictions on worship. 2. Jesus answers this question about taxes, as usual, by asking another one. “Who’s image and inscription is on the Roman coin?” The answer is, “Caesar’s”. At this point Jesus famously says, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). But notice what Jesus does. By saying this he actually subtly defines the authority of the state. The implication of Jesus’ words is this: “We all know Caesar’s image is on the coin. But whose image is imprinted on Caesar? Whose image is imprinted on every man?” And the obvious answer to that is, “God’s image.” In other words, one of the things that is not “rendered” to Caesar is the right to determine what should be rendered to Caesar.
When Tim Stephens was being arrested one of the officers tried to tell him, “You know the Bible actually says, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars’s.” Pastor Tim’s reply was not only brilliant but also perfectly understood Jesus’ words in Matthew 22. He replied, “Yes, and the gathered church of Jesus Christ does NOT belong to Caesar.”