COVID Restrictions and Civil Disobedience

Edvard Munch’s Self-portrait with Spanish Flu (1919) expresses the artist’s own pain (Credit: Nasjonalmuseet/ Lathion, Jacques)

Over the course of the SARS-CoV2 pandemic, there have been several highly publicized instances where pastors have refused to adhere to infectious disease preventative measures established by health departments. Currently in the headlines and being discussed in Christian circles is Pastor James Coates of Alberta, Canada. Below is a brief overview of the unfolding situation [1]:

“Pastor Coates broke provincial law when he organized and hosted gatherings that contravened public health orders. While churches can meet for worship in Alberta, GraceLife Church of Edmonton gathered more persons than the temporary fire code capacity limit allows and did not accommodate for physical distancing or request mask-wearing. You can read the Alberta Health Services report for February 14th here.” (report pictured below)

“In January, Alberta Health Services asked the court to enforce its public health orders. On February 7th, Pastor Coates received an undertaking with the condition that he would comply with Health Orders (i.e., the condition of the undertaking) until a full hearing on the merits of his case.”

“Since Pastor Coates did not comply with the undertaking (i.e., by following the court’s orders), he was subject to arrest. For this reason, he turned himself in to the police. Due to breaking the conditions of his undertaking he is now liable to be found in contempt of court, which may attract further liability under the Criminal Code…. Since Pastor Coates did not comply with the undertaking (i.e., by following the court’s orders), he was subject to arrest.”

“Pastor Coates is being held until such time as he agrees to comply with the court’s undertakings, namely, following public health orders. These undertakings likely include hosting religious services with allowance for distancing and making the request that attendees wear masks; it would likely also include limiting the number of those who can enter the building at one time. Pastor Coates’s lawyer, James Kitchen, explains this here (6:30ff).”

“Pastor Coates has declined to accept these conditions and so remains in a remand centre.”

According to many of Coates’ supporters, the pastor was jailed for preaching the Gospel and/or merely holding Sunday services.

This early illustrated manuscript depicts the Black Death (Credit: Courtesy of Louise Marshall/ Archivio di Stato, Lucca)

In a public letter, Pastor Coates framed his refusal to adhere to infectious disease preventative measures as a political protest for the preservation of religious liberty [2]:

Many Albertans are afraid and are convinced of the efficacy of government lockdowns for two reasons: misinformation and fearmongering. The media has so pounded the COVID-19 drum since the “pandemic” began, almost exclusively emphasizing caseload and deaths, that people are fearful. So fearful, in fact, they have been convinced that yielding up their civil liberties to the government is in their best interests. It is difficult to have not lost confidence in the mainstream media. It would seem as though journalism is on life-support in our province. 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.

What do we believe people should do? We believe they should responsibly return to their lives. 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. In fact, some say we are on the cusp of reaching the point of no return…

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.

What does Scripture say?

Much of the discussion among Christians which has sprung forth from Pastor Coates’ civil disobedience and subsequent arrest has included references to Scripture, such as Romans13. For this reason, thought a review of Scripture would be timely.

Romans 13:1-4 says (ESV):

1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.

“To defy the civil government is to defy God, for God works in and through the governing authorities. This principle holds true so long as the civil ordinance is not in opposition to God, but promotes good works. When civil rulers are in direct opposition to God, the believer must follow God (see Acts 4:19; 5:29).” [3] 

“Because the civil government is established by God, St. Paul calls a civil authority God’s minister. He is responsible to protect those who are good and to execute punishment on those who practice evil… Believers are commanded to be subject to civil authorities not only for fear of earthly punishment (because of wrath), but because they know that in obeying the authorities, they are obeying God (for conscience’s sake).” [4]

Poussin painted The Plague of Ashdod in 1630-31 (Credit: DEA / G DAGLI ORTI/ De Agostini via Getty Images)

1 Peter 2:11-17 says (ESV):

11 Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. 12 Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.

13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution,[a] whether it be to the emperor[b] as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants[c] of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

“After Peter had helped to establish the church in Antioch, he preached to Jews and converts to Judaism throughout northern Asia Minor. Later, in Rome, hearing that the churches in Asia Minor were being persecuted, he wrote them this letter of encouragement,” which we now refer to as 2 Peter. [5]

Up until the point at which the above section of Scripture begins, Peter had “been addressing the whole of the Church, describing the benefits and challenges of salvation. Now [where the above passage begins], he speaks to various groups of Christians – citizens, servants, wives, husbands, pastors – exhorting all to forsake sinful passions and to live as sojourners and pilgrims in the world.” [6]

“Peter urges his readers to be obedient to civil government. While Christians serve a higher authority, God Himself, it is God who calls us to submit to earthly leaders for the Lord’s sake. This is not a call to ‘separate’ Church from state, but rather a call to cooperate with and enhance the state – realizing that at times Church and state have been at great odds.” [7]

Plague is portrayed as a punishment in this 14th-Century illustration (Credit: Rylands Library/ University of Manchester)

There are several notable exceptions to absolute obedience found in Scripture. These examples fall into three categories: (1) refusal to worship other gods, (2) actions taken to save the lives of others, and (3) refusal to cease preaching about Jesus Christ.

Refusal to worship other gods

  • Daniel 3:12-18 Shadrack, Misheck and Abednego refused to worship the golden statue.
  • Daniel 6:10 Daniel refused to pray to the king and instead continued to pray only to God.

Actions taken to save lives

  • Exodus 1:17-21 Pharaoh ordered the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, to kill all newly born Hebrew boys, but they feared God and disobeyed.
  • Esther 4:16 Going to the king unsummoned was punishable by death. In so doing, Esther risked her life to save her people from annihilation.
  • Hebrews 11:23 Moses’ parents hid him from authorities to save his life.

Refusal to cease preaching about Christ

  • Acts 5:27-32 The apostles were ordered to stop preaching about Jesus, but they refused.

While the above does not constitute an exhaustive list of exceptions to absolute obedience of civil authorities – we certainly shouldn’t sin at behest of the government – from these few examples we are able to glean a general idea of when disobedience is appropriate. To our knowledge, Pastor Coates has not been asked to worship other gods or to cease preaching about Jesus Christ, or even to cease holding Sunday services. Coates has been asked to take preventative measures to ensure the preservation of human life by adhering to conditions imposed by the civil authorities in Alberta, “which call for attendance to be capped at 15 per cent (sic) of capacity and congregants to practise physical distancing and wear masks.” [8] In this respect, Pastor Coates is acting contrary to the actions of Esther, Moses’ parents, and the two Hebrew midwives.

Furthermore, Christ warned His followers against making a public show of their holiness as the Pharisees were known to do (Mt. 6:16). The examples above demonstrate humble allegiance to the Lord. Neither Esther, Daniel, nor the others sought to draw attention to themselves.

This 16th-Century engraving is by Raimondi (Credit: The National Gallery of Art Washington DC)

“Trials and temptations come on their own: we should never intentionally expose ourselves to danger in order to test or prove God’s protection. To do so is to tempt the LORD.” [9]

“God’s Kingdom is not one of earthly power and possessions. In the devil’s test, Jesus was being asked to choose worldly power over the Kingdom of God. The devil is the ‘ruler of the world’ (Jn 12:31), ‘the god of this age’ (2Co 4:4), because the whole world is in his power (1Jn 5:19). Jesus refuses the road of earthly glory, which would lead Him away from His suffering and death for the redemption of the world.” [10]

In the words of Matthew Henry, “Believers are to consider how they can be of service to each other, especially stirring up each other to the more vigorous and abundant exercise of love, and the practice of good works.” [11]


[1] Graham, W. (2021, February 19). What you need to know about the arrest of pastor james Coates. Retrieved February 20, 2021, from

[2] Stop what you’re doing and read this unbelievably epic statement from that CANADIAN church WHOSE pastor was jailed for preaching. (2021, February 18). Retrieved February 25, 2021, from

[3] Academic Community of St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology (2008). Romans. In The Orthodox study Bible (p. 1575). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.

[4] Ibid. 3

[5] Academic Community of St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology (2008). 2 Peter. In The Orthodox study Bible (p. 1711). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.

[6] Ibid. 5, P. 1716

[7] Ibid. 5, P, 1716

[8] CBS News. (2021, February 18). GraceLife pastor held in custody for refusing to comply with bail CONDITIONS | CBC News. Retrieved February 25, 2021, from

[9] Academic Community of St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology (2008). Matthew. In The Orthodox study Bible (p. 1302). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.

[10] Ibid. 9
[11] Hebrews 10:25 commentaries: Not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near. (n.d.). Retrieved February 25, 2021, from

2 thoughts on “COVID Restrictions and Civil Disobedience Leave a comment

  1. Great article and very organized and detailed. Just one suggestion; to remove the image of the lady with the breasts simply because if this article gets shared, which I hope it does, I already know proponents claiming persecution will immediately dismiss the basis clearly laid out here simply because of that image.

Leave a Reply