Sunday, February 21, 2021

Pandemic Worship and Religious Liberty

The question of pandemic worship and religious liberty has arrived in my city—its exurbs, to be precise. GraceLife Church of Edmonton in Parkland County has been practising civil disobedience of Alberta's 15%-of-fire-code-occupancy cap on indoor public gatherings ever since the government announced stronger pandemic-related restrictions in December.

Public health officials quietly monitored the situation and attempted to bring the church into compliance over the intervening month. But the situation was brought into the open when police charged the pastor-teacher of the church with failure to abide by a closure order. James Coates turned himself into the police and, starting this week, is being held in remand custody for refusing to abide by conditions of bail, which apparently forbade him from doing certain activities that he deemed necessary for his calling.


My goal in this essay is not to comment on the manner in which the authorities have enforced Alberta's regulations. That situation is developing, and, as of this writing, the church is holding another gathering from which they were apparently turning people away because they would have exceeded their fire code occupancy limit.

Rather, I will briefly evaluate the theological and philosophical arguments that the church and its pastor-teacher have given for their position and argue that they are unsound from a Seventh-day Adventist and liberal-democratic perspective. I will show how certain of their errors may originate in the distinctives of Calvinist Reformed theology. Pastor Coates is a graduate of John McArthur's Master's Seminary, which is a culturally and theologically conservative expression of the Reformed tradition. (For context, note that Pastor McArthur's megachurch has also been involved in longstanding legal disputes around its refusals to follow California's pandemic rules, some of which the US Supreme Court found to have unfairly singled-out churches.) However, I will also show why not everyone who holds to some kind of reformed political theology would subscribe to any or all of Pastor Coates's or GraceLife Church's views.

Also note that while it has become a trope among certain Adventists, who are interested in recovering our Arminian theological heritage on the doctrine of salvation, to rhetorically position themselves against anything Calvinist, that is not my intent here. Adventists also have theological roots in John Calvin and the Reformed traditions, including the roots of our seventh-day Sabbatarianism! But Adventist political theology, which remains to be systematically articulated, stands among the Dissenting traditions, some of which split from the Reformed traditions. That difference is what I am primarily addressing in what follows.

Sermon Evaluation

In a sermon preached last Sunday, Pastor Coates made a theological case for why churches should continue to operate at full capacity. It rested on the following propositions, which I summarize as theses and evaluate below.

1. The government has no jurisdiction over how the church conducts its worship.

Pastor Coates asserted, without biblical reference, that God has not given the government authority to set "terms of worship" for the church. I suspect that the roots of this claim lie in Augustinian two-cities theology, which informed the Medieval system of separate church and civil legal systems that was overturned by the Reformation and Enlightenment. Contrast this with another Reformed view of church-state relations, Kuyperian "sphere sovereignty," in with the state directs churches away from actions that are destructive to public interests (see p. 12).

Seventh-day Adventists, following the Calvinist Dissenter, Roger Williams, build their church-state view, in part, on the biblical distinction between the two great commandments: the law of love for God and the law of love for neighbour. We hold that governments may legislate in the areas covered by the second table of the law (last six commandments) when such actions harm others in this life. But governments should not legislate in the areas covered by the first table of the law (first four commandments), which are strictly matters of individual conscience to be guided by the church. A.T. Jones's made this argument in his testimony before a US Senate committee against the Blair Sunday observance bill (National Sunday Law, p. 18). According to the two-tables principle, governments cannot tell us what songs to sing in worship, but they can, as long as they aren't singling out faith communities, tell us to wear masks while singing them so as not to endanger public safety. They can tell us not to sing songs the incite violence, but they cannot tell us which god(s) to sing about.

2. The church should show the government how to conduct "its God-ordained duty."

This is true as far as the temporal, second-table goals of human governance go, with the provision that a single church or civil society organization does not have a privileged role in this regard. Otherwise, we get a soft-theocracy, which is characteristic of certain Calvinist approaches to political theology that try in some way to direct governments toward eternal, first-table ends. As I argue in this essay, the problem with privileging one church's voice to the state is that it can just as easily be turned against that church when it falls out of favour and is replaced by some other church or secularized version thereof. Regardless, I suspect that Pastor Coates and I are not in disagreement on this point.

3. The dominion God gave humanity in the Garden of Eden confers "unalienable" rights, such as a right to work and to be with your family when they are dying.

The "unalienable" rights enumerated in the US Declaration of Independence are "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." That succinct and general expression of a philosophical orientation toward the basis of American common life required specific expression in the US Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments to the US Constitution to be realized. The same is true of the dominion God gave humanity at creation. The general mandate given to humanity in a nutshell in the creation account is elaborated in the books of the law and the other canonical scriptures. Identifying unalienable rights to work or be with family at death in Genesis 1 is an exercise in reading a specific interpretation of contemporary liberal-democratic norms into the biblical text.

Furthermore, specific human rights, like the right to work or be with family at death, are not unalienable but are limited by the rights of others—in this case, their right to not be exposed to diseases. In light of Leviticus 13–14, the Edenic dominion decree plausibly implies a mandate to figure out what causes the spread of infectious diseases and stop it. The biblical quarantine laws accomplish this, as do economic shutdowns, by limiting the right to be with family in some cases.

As the aphorism goes: Your rights end where my nose begins. That metaphor, originally used to make the case for prohibition, became literal during the COVID-19 pandemic. A more sophisticated way of putting it is that when the second-order effects of the free actions of individuals have the cumulative effect of threatening the bodies or property of others, the government has a reason to restrict their liberty via the least restrictive means. (For an entertaining, if somewhat lengthy, illustration of why that is the case, read this.)

Understanding the second-order, rights-end-at-nose principle applied to the second table of the law, along with the freedom of conscience principle with regard to the first, is how American Adventists in the late nineteenth century could be intellectually consistent while publicly advocating against Sunday-closing laws and for prohibition.

4. "God is sovereign over the virus." The government didn't cause it, so they aren't responsible if someone dies from it. But if someone dies from pandemic restrictions, the government is responsible for that. So the government should not restrict liberties to deal with the virus.

God intended for the principles of Israel's law to be an example to the nations (see, for example, Deuteronomy 4:5–6) and held the nations surrounding Israel to account when they violated certain principles found in Israel's law (see the Old Testament prophets' oracles against the nations). This example extends down to our time through the influence of Judaism and Christianity on the liberal-democratic political tradition, which has recognized a principle of quarantine that justifies limited governmental restrictions on individual liberty to prevent the spread of infectious disease. By interpreting Old Testament quarantine laws as a source of "Progressive Moral Wisdom" (Matthew 5:17–19), Christians should be predisposed to support quarantines and adopt new customs when they judge they will preserve life.

Statement Evaluation

The thesis expressed in Pastor Coates's sermon, that the government should not restrict liberties to restrain viruses, is expanded in the following paragraph of the statement on the church's website. I will evaluate it in this section.

That said, 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. 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. It is found in Him because all of us have sinned and have fallen short of God’s perfect standard of righteousness (Rom 3:23). To sin is to violate the holiness and righteousness of God. As our Creator, He is the one who will judge us according to our deeds and no one will stand on their own merit in that judgment. Therefore, we need a substitute. One who has both lived the life we could not and died the death we deserve.

This let's-take-our-chances philosophy is likely the political upshot of the view of providence behind Pastor Coates's reference to God's sovereignty. Calvinist views of free will (specifically, either our lack thereof or its compatibility with divine determinism) and predestination (those whom God chose choose him) can form the intuition that when a deadly disease surprises us with a novel form of risk, God in some sense sent it upon us to drive us to him for our eternal security. And if some people die from it, that should also be accepted as God's will. This can result in a quasi-fatalist quietism in the face of major social problems, like that which Cotton Mather confronted in eighteenth-century Boston when his Calvinist Puritan brothers declared that he was interfering with a divine judgment by experimenting with smallpox inoculation: We shouldn't try anything too novel in response to novel risks, because that would put us in rebellion against God's sovereignty.
Adventists differ from this political view because we believe that humans have been given free will. We believe that God acts in history in ways that we cannot stop, sometimes even executing, as I argue, judgment on contemporary nations. But Adventists also believe that Satan is ultimately the cause of sickness and death and that humans can and should choose to cooperate with God's laws of health to reduce our risk of sickness and death. And we believe that fighting sickness and death via health reform is the "right-arm" of our gospel proclamation because it is a token of eternal life.
To spread the benefits of health, Adventists have a tradition of fighting sickness and death through social reform—not just individual, family, or church reform, but legislation and social organization that restricts our liberties to the least extent necessary to prevent deadly second-order effects of individual actions. We find this tradition in the chapter on "Liquor Traffic and Prohibition" in The Ministry of Healing and in our denominational leadership organizing preventative quarantines during the 1918 Flu. (For the record, American prohibition was not the disaster that the popular historical narrative makes it out to be.) In liberal-democratic countries like Canada, where citizens have been given a say in how their society governs itself, Christians should continue to use that influence to support quarantines, including economic shutdowns, as means to fight sickness and death.

Cost-Benefit of the Shutdowns

Finally, the GraceLife Church's statement makes an extended case that the pandemic is not that bad and that the shutdowns intended to stop COVID-19 transmission have potentially done more harm than good. I don't believe that case holds up in view of the big numbers: year-over-year death certificates and confirmed COVID-19 deaths.

For example, the US, Canada, and Australia have similar cultures and share a common political tradition derived from English representative democracy and Common Law. They also have had stable death rates in the years leading up to 2020. In the US, where shutdowns were inconsistently applied, confirmed COVID-19 deaths account for about two-thirds of the high rate of excess mortality in the 2020 reporting period (source). In Canada, where shutdowns were more strictly applied than in the US, including some lockdown-type measures, confirmed COVID-19 deaths account for nearly all of the moderate rate of excess mortality in the 2020 reporting period (source 1, source 2). And in Australia, which applied strict, lockdown-style shutdowns, there was no excess mortality in the 2020 reporting period (source). Anyone who wants to persuade me that shutdowns don't save lives overall, or that they cause more people to die from other causes than would have died from COVID-19, etc. is going to have to get around those big, hard-to-distort numbers without appealing to some kind of conspiracy theory.

This is not to say that shutdowns don't have negative effects that lead to higher deaths for certain populations. So do other public health restrictions on individual liberty (such as narcotics laws). Nor is it to say that we should not attempt to ameliorate those negative second-order effects. Nor do I imply that governments should enact the strictest possible lockdowns as if extending life were the only earthly human good that matters. My point is simply that the big numbers bear out the view that a broadly pro-life response to the novel coronavirus requires of us some form of shutdown in the absence of widespread vaccination.


But the bigger point is that this argument about the cost-benefit of Alberta's shutdown is a matter of political judgment that is only tangential to a principled religious liberty argument. It seems to me that, in their statement, GraceLife Church is leveraging religious liberty to make a political point: Contrary to the majority of their neighbours and their elected officials, they believe that the shutdowns are doing more harm than good. But because they are a church, they want their beliefs about God to shield their political dissent.

In Pastor Coates's sermon, he argues for a view of religious liberty that I can't support either as an Adventist, because he doesn't understand the structure of God's law as it applies to government enforcement, or as a liberal-democrat, because he doesn't understand that our liberties can be limited when they are used in ways that have harmful second-order effects on other's bodies and/or property.

I believe Pastor Coates should have the opportunity to promote these views, practice civil-disobedience, attain good legal representation, and argue his case in court. But I also believe the government may to enforce its rules in the case of him and his church, including
, if necessary, using incarceration. I further hope and anticipate that the courts will reject the view of religious liberty for which he has become a symbol.


  1. Pt 1

    I’d like to make a few points in response to this embarrassing and misleading essay.
    First though, the fact that David Hamstra has taken the opportunity to kick James Coates while he is down and in prison for his faith, shows terrible judgment on Hamstra’s part. Hamstra’s essay comes of as petty and arrogant, and if he wasn’t so busy throwing stones at a man in prison he might realize just how small it makes him look.
    That aside, Hamstra’s essay contains a number of deceptive/misleading arguments which need to be addressed, some of which are the following.
    1. Hamstra compares leprosy (he cites Leviticus 13 and 14, both chapters dealing with the examination and exclusion of lepers) and Covid and the government of Alberta closing or severely limiting church services. Frankly, comparing the Levitical isolation of persons with leprosy from the camp of ancient Israel to Covid is ridiculous.

    Lepers were known to be lepers because they showed physical symptoms of a disease which was always crippling and debilitating and horrific. There was no treatment for it. People who contracted it had to isolate, not for 14 days, but usually for the rest of their lives. The fear of leprosy in the ancient world was not misplaced.

    The vast majority of people who get covid, by contrast, recover without any treatment whatsoever. The mortality rate for covid across all age groups is .003%. That means the survival rate for Covid is 99.7%. Let that sink in while you contemplate whether Hamstra’s comparison of leprosy to covid makes any sense.

    Furthermore, most people who get covid are asymptomatic, meaning that Covid is so little of a threat that when people get it, most of them never even know they had it. Those who exhibit symptoms typically exhibit mild symptoms.

    When you got leprosy you knew it. When your fingers and nose fall off its impossible to miss.

    The comparison of leprosy or other deadly illnesses like Ebola, with covid, is intellectually dishonest, and is a foundational and flawed premise to Hamstra’s article.

    Hamstra proceeds from his flawed premise to the conclusion that, because Covid is so dangerous government is justified in overriding citizens’ constitutional rights and their free will. He cursorily alludes to data from the US to justify Canada’s lockdowns, ignoring the fact that states that didn’t lock down faired about the same as states that did lock down but the non-lockdown states preserved civil liberties and their economies are not devastated. Hamstra also doesn’t tell the reader that the data shows that 2020 was not an abnormal year in Canada or in any province for aggregate deaths when compared with 2017, 2018 and 2019.

    Let me repeat – Covid is so deadly it didn’t move the needle on deaths for 2020 when compared to 2017, 2018 and 2019.

    Hamstra gives a mere nod to the socio-economic-constitutional devastation wrought by the lockdowns. His argument about how good it is that government has overridden civil liberties ignores the fact that people are literally killing themselves because of the lockdowns. Many people have lost everything – their jobs, their businesses, their domestic peace, their freedom. Drug and alcohol abuse is through the roof. Domestic violence is way up. Suicides are skyrocketing. But Hamstra thinks James Coates is wrong for wanting to minister to his hurting congregation. Maybe some of Hamstra’s congregants secretly wish they had a pastor with the principles and the courage of James Coates, instead of the petty pastor who takes pot shots at Coates while he’s in prison. I note Coates congregation is growing rapidly.

  2. 2. Hamstra misuses A T Jones. Hamstra cites Jones’ arguments on the Blair Bill and then tries to argue by implication that Jones would support his argument that the health requirements do not infringe the first four Commandments in the Decalogue, and therefore that Caesar (the state) has lawful jurisdiction to prevent churches from gathering/severely controlling services.

    With all due respect to Hamstra, this argument is just simply incorrect.

    The first four Commandments in the decalogue deal with the worship of God. The first commandment requires people to have no other gods before the Lord. The second commandment forbids idolatry.
    On its face, telling people they can’t gather to worship God in accordance with their conscience and religion on the pretense of stopping Covid (which is not a credible threat to the majority of the population) is interfering with the first commandment. It is reminiscent of Daniel 5, and the prohibition on praying to anyone but Darius.
    More to the point, however, the sacrilegious elevation of healthcare to the single predominant priority and power in Canada is an act of idolatry. Mankind has obligations to their Creator that the state is prohibited from meddling with. Each person is a free moral agent, an individual, created by God, and the right of individual conscience is a sacred principle. In a free society, where a virus like Covid is present, thinking people have a right to decide to gather or not gather.
    If you think its too great a risk to go to church, don’t go. Stay home. Be afraid. But in a free society, a free people have a right to go, to hold Bible studies in their homes, to make judgments about the (miniscule) risks to their person and act accordingly.

  3. pt 3

    Dr. Hinshaw is certainly interfering in religious worship and doing so on the false and deceptive promise of “safety”. Do we forget so easily what the Scriptures say? “For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape.” Government cannot make you safe. That is an illusion, and one which many are embracing, trading that which is of infinitely greater value – their personal liberty.
    Slavish reliance on the government to safeguard health is an act of idolatry. Jesus said - “man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”
    The Adventist church with its health message ought to be the last denomination on the planet excusing government lockdowns on the pretense of safeguarding public health. At no point in Canada’s history has the government ever prevented religious gatherings, not even during swine flu or Spanish flu, both of which were far more dangerous than Covid.

  4. pt 4

    3. Hamstra misrepresents the inalienable rights provision in the Declaration of Independence, and falsely claims that the rights spoken of are confined to “life liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This is simply incorrect. The Founders prefaced the rights of life liberty and the pursuit of happiness with the words “among them”. Liberty of conscience and religion are included not excluded from “inalienable rights.

    In fact, the First Amendment to the Constitution states that Congress shall make no law with respect to the free exercise of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and the right to assemble to seek the redress of public grievances. In other words, these rights are inalienable.

    Patrick Henry said “give me liberty or give me death.” The reason he said that is because death is preferable to slavery.
    In Canada, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms says that Canada is a society which is to be a “free and democratic society”. Nowhere does it say that it will be a safe society, or nanny state like the one being proposed by Hamstra.
    5. Generally, Hamstra ought to be more concerned to stand up for the religious rights of his brother, instead of kicking him while he is in prison. Job’s useless friends, anyone? Do you think that kicking an evangelical pastor while he’s down will make it more likely or less likely that he will support your religious liberty regarding the Sabbath?

  5. Finally, there are no examples in the Scriptures where the sanctuary service was shut down because some people had leprosy or any other illness. And only sick people had to quarantine. The forced confinement of healthy people is a disgrace to a free society, and shame on David Hamstra for his defense of such oppressive measures.

  6. When it comes to freedom I would expect more from a "liberal", though perhaps this affiliation is a new school liberal and not the classic school that I may lean to. Reading this I am struck by Niemoller quote of-They came for the socialist, unioinist and Jew but I said nothing as I was not them, when they came for me- there was no one left to speak for me. (paraphrased). Interestingly it ends with a statement that You (individual) are within your rights to exercise free speech and they (government) forcing restrictions on your constitutional rights is within their authority , and at no time as they restrict our religious freedoms should the argument of religious freedoms be voiced. Seems strange to come from a "Shepard" of a church. The argument of the Lepers has to do with a known disease- Alberta restricting healthy people from attending or singing does not apply here, unless we wont be using actual numbers released from the government. Quarantining people and restricting participation before someone is sick is closer to the Minority Report where you can be arrested before you commit a crime, maybe that doesnt apply, but certainly the Leper argument does NOT apply here.

  7. In what follows, I will address selected claims made above by an anonymous commenter to further clarify my positions and methods in the essay above for the sake of my readers.

    First, to the commenter's claims that I have written something wrong or unseemly, it is my experience that anonymous rebukes are to be taken with a grain of salt. There is nothing shameful about addressing arguments that a fellow pastor and church have offered to the public to justify their course of civil disobedience precisely because civil disobedience and the consequences it entails are not their own justification. My conscience compeled me to respectfully disagree and explain why. In the course of doing so, I did not impugn the character of Pastor Coates or GraceLife Church. I explained why they are mistaken without impugning their motives. We cannot say the same for what the commenter wrote about me.

    Second, the commenter made a host of historical and scientific claims that we cannot evaluate because the commenter did not provide any sources for those claims.

    Third, many of the skin lesions that were cause for quarantine according to Old Testament law were symptomatic of skin diseases that were not the disease that we call leprosy today (see, for example, There is no biblical evidence about how debilitating the effects of those other skin lesions were. So we cannot limit the principle of quarantine on the assumption that biblical quarantine was only practiced for a skin disease with severely debilitating effects.

    Fourth, I did not use A.T. Jones as a source for my claim that shutdowns fall within the government's scope of authority but as a source for my claim that the two-tables principle is part of the Adventist tradition.

    Fifth, I do not deny that there is a first-table issue at stake in limiting the size of worship gatherings and the ability to conduct them during a pandemic. The point is that there is also a second-table issue at stake which falls under the authority of the government. This is also the case when, to appeal to a generally non-controversial example, the government sets an occupancy limit on a worship space based on fire safety regulations, which limit religious liberty in order to prevent a very small number of disasters from happening.

    Sixth, I agree with the commenter that religious liberty was alluded to by the Founders in their list of inalienable rights, but not as in addition to them. Rather, it was likely a part of what would have been involved the "pursuit of happiness" according to liberal political philosophy at the time. The other general rights contemplated but not mentioned in the Declaration were likely along the lines of Locke's "indolency of body; and the possession of outward things" (,_Liberty_and_the_pursuit_of_Happiness). But we still need a way of explaining where rights have their limits, and understanding general, non-specific rights as being less limited and specific rights as more so seems to hold.

    I think most North Americans would agree that where religious practices jeopardize others' life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, and other general rights, they are liable to be limited, albeit in ways that are narrowly tailored to the objective because religious liberty doesn't simply go away just because it has limits. Accordingly, I approve of the US Supreme Court's order that California permit houses of worship to reopen because I hold that religious liberty requires that religious groups should not have greater second-table restrictions on them than other groups in civil society.

  8. My son David has pointed-out that may of the claims made by an anonymous commenter are unsourced and potentially untestable. However the claims regarding the lethality of leprosy vs COVID are testable from published sources. In the following evaluation I am drawing from data published by the WHO (for leprosy) and by the USCDC, AMA and Johns Hopkins (for COVID).

    First I would like to remind readers that the overall human mortality rate is 100% with very few exceptions (eg Enoch, Elijah). Even Methuselah eventually died (possibly by drowning in the flood?). It is true that 100% of lepers eventually die, and that would include the leprosy "survivors" healed by Christ. It is also true that 100% of COVID "survivors" will eventually die. The best hope to arrest this mortality rate is the Second Advent.

    According to the WHO, in a study in Southern India (published in 1972) where the incidence of leprosy is far higher than in North America, leprosy was a contributing cause in about 1% of all deaths. On the other hand, data published by the CDC shows that in 2020 COVID was the third leading cause of death in the USofA. Depending on how you analyze the data COVID was a contributing cause in at least 20% to 25% of all deaths in the USofA, whereas leprosy was insignificant.

    Without modern medical interventions the ancient death rate from leprosy would perhaps have been higher than in Southern India a half century ago. Had there been a COVID pandemic in ancient times the death rate would have been much higher than presently in the USofA today. One only has to consider the relative mortality from the Spanish Flu pandemic a century ago to appreciate how much less mortality is experienced with modern medical care, or the death rates experienced early in the COVID pandemic while doctors were learning how to treat these unfortunate patients.

    From the foregoing, it is entirely reasonable for civil authorities to treat COVID as a public health emergency. If quarantining anyone who showed early symptoms of potential leprosy was reasonable in the law of Moses, quarantines and other extreme measures taken to arrest the spread of COVID are Biblically supportable.

    Next I would like to address what may in part be a typo in the same anonymous comment. From CDC data the short-term death rate from reported COVID cases in the USofA is about 1.8%. CDC and AMA studies would support a ratio of total vs reported COVID case of 4:1 to 6:1. Taking the higher ratio the short-term death rate from COVID in the USofA would be 0.3%, rather than the .003% in the comment, presumably a typo given the same comment claims a 99.7% survival rate.

    However comparing the short-term death rate from COVID to the long-term death rate from leprosy is a major fallacy. Nobody knows what will be the long-term death rate for COVID. Preliminary studies are showing indications of ongoing respiratory impairment and symptoms of brain damage in COVID survivors, at rates that may be an order of magnitude higher than the short-term mortality rate.