Abide in the Word

Ecclesiology and the Arrest of Pastor James Coates

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by Pastor Mike Hovland

I want to address something that has been on my heart this past week as I’ve seen many of the responses to the posts about James Coates’ imprisonment. Early on in this pandemic I saw a tweet on this website that went something like this “I wonder if the church of 2020 has an ecclesiology robust enough to justify its own existence.”

From what I have seen many do not have a biblical understanding of the church and its importance. Professing Christians are saying things like, “GraceLife does have religious freedom they just have to follow the health guidelines like everyone else,” or “Our church live-streamed services this year and we are still saved, what’s the big deal?” I’m sure you’ve seen similar comments and many like them.

Let me share my perspective on this whole thing. I think it would be very close to what James Coates and GraceLife would say, but this is my own. The Christian’s ultimate purpose is to glorify God. This is actually the purpose for which all men were created. The Christian however, is one who has come to see that God is worthy of our lives and worship. The purpose of my life is to honor God and live in such a way that all men might see how great, good, and awesome he is. Although I once lived for myself and my own desires, what the Bible calls sin, I have been transformed through Jesus Christ and reconciled to God. This salvation opens my eyes to the glory (goodness and greatness) of God such that I recognize him as worthy of my life. The Christian wants to live for Jesus’ sake even at the cost of his or her own life (Matt 10:37–39; 16:24–26; 2 Cor 4:3–6). Jesus gave his life to pay the penalty for my sin and he is worthy of my life—and your life. The greatest privilege of the believer’s life is to be allowed to live for Jesus Christ.

Now, let’s tie this understanding of the Christian mindset to the church. What the Lord Jesus Christ is doing in this age is saving people and adding them to his church. Christ said he would build his church (Matt 16:18). The word church means gathering. The local church is the gathering together of believers who desire to live their lives as an act of worship to Christ. The gathering consists of things like worship (singing), the reading of Scripture, prayer, listening to the preaching of God’s word, the Lord’s Supper, baptism, and fellowship. God uses the church and its gathering to make the believer more like Jesus Christ. We become God’s instruments for spiritual growth in one another’s lives. The more we are like Christ, the more we honor God with our lives. Fellowship is an essential element in the life of a Christian. We cannot do this by live-streaming a service. Christian worship requires two-way, close, interaction in one another’s lives.

Sadly, many professing Christians are missing this perspective or have never even had this kind of fellowship in their lives. 15% of the gathering is not the gathering. In Alberta right now that is all the government allows. The government also requires that the church leave immediately after the “service” and that they stay separated 6 feet from each other with masks on. This does not allow true fellowship which our worship requires.

So, what do we do as Christians when the government is restricting some important aspects of our worship? The historic Christian position is that the government has no authority to tell the church how we can worship. Whenever the government forbids what God has required, our response is to obey God and submit to whatever the government opposes on us, even death. This is what James Coates and other godly pastors are doing right now. We have decided that we must continue to serve one another and worship together, especially in these dark days.

If the world hates us because of this, we are not surprised. If they throw us in jail, we will accept it. We may say, this is unjust, but we will submit to it. We believe Christ is worthy of much more than this. We hope that our actions will show the world how great our Savior truly is. But if you do not, know that this is how many of us feel about what we must do right now.

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