Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

24 Feb 2021

What Counts as Religious Persecution?

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You may have heard about the pastor in Alberta, James Coates, who has been arrested recently in connection with his church’s gathering as a whole for worship (without masks or distancing), which violates the current government restrictions. You can see some details (and slightly different perspectives) here and here. My goal here is not to determine whether or not Coates and his church made the right or wisest decision (though that could be a valuable discussion). Rather, I want to consider a debate that has risen in connection with it—is it legitimate to say that Coates is facing religious persecution?

Some critics have argued that it is misleading or wrong to call this religious persecution, and their conclusion seems to rest on one (or more) of three arguments. I want to consider these arguments and how they might apply to recent and potentially upcoming issues of conflict between Christians and government on issues of sexuality and gender. For example, how would these arguments apply to a Christian baker who believes it would be wrong to bake a cake for a gay wedding, or a Christian operator of a women’s homeless shelter who refused to admit a biological male, or a Christian counselor who does not want to advocate for transition-affirming therapies but instead help the person accept the body God gave him or her?

Argument 1: It’s not religious persecution because the government is not specifically targeting religions/religious people.”

Some believe it is wrong to see this issue from a religious perspective instead of a more broad civil liberties issue. The government restrictions apply to other kinds of gatherings/institutions/organizations, and someone could be facing the same consequences if they violated the order as a restaurant owner, a bowling alley manager, or a casino operator.

Evaluation: But this same argument applies to the other situations: The government is not specifically targeting the baker because he is a Christian—a Muslim, Jew, or even a secular person opposed to gay marriage would face the same consequences. It doesn’t matter whether or not your homeless shelter is Christian—if your organization is designed for women, then you must include biological men who identify as women. Every counselor is being asked to advocate for transition-affirming therapies—you are not being targeted because you are a Christian.

Argument 2: “It’s not religious persecution because the pastor/church could have found other ways to conform to the government restrictions.”

Others claim this is not religious persecution because the pastor/church could have simply adjusted or accommodated themselves to the restrictions. The government is not specifically saying you cannot meet—it’s only specifying capacity limits and other measures have to be in place, and the church could have adjusted themselves to fall in line with those restrictions.

Evaluation: But could this argument apply to our examples? Consider the following: The baker could have decided not to design cakes for weddings, or sub-contracted the work to someone else. The women’s homeless shelter could become a non-gender specific shelter that was simply designed to house anyone. The counselor does not have to advocate for transition-affirming therapies even if she is not allowed to advocate against them. She could simply keep her opinion to herself and direct the person to someone else who would affirm them.

Argument 3: “It’s not religious persecution because they are wrong to come to the conclusion they have, i.e., this is not behavior that a Christian is compelled to do, and, thus, cannot be Christian persecution.”

This final argument is connected to an important point—not every hardship you face is actually persecution. In fact, you may simply be facing the consequences of your own wrong choices (1 Peter 2:19-20; 4:14-16). Those making this argument claim the pastor/church is wrong to conclude that they need to gather as one body (at least at this time or in these circumstances), so the penalties they face should not be viewed as persecution.

Evaluation: How does this argument apply to our examples? I’ve seen some argue that a Christian baker (or florist, photographer, etc.) should simply serve any person who asks for their services. It’s perfectly fine for a Christian to bake a cake for a gay wedding, so refusing to do so should bring consequences. One could argue that a Christian women’s homeless shelter may have a great opportunity to try to help a biological male who identifies as a woman, so it would be wrong for them to think they could not admit that person. Some professing Christians believe it is harmful to keep someone from transitioning, so in order to love your neighbor a Christian counselor should try to help someone in the transitioning process.

To be clear, I am not necessarily endorsing any of the above arguments. (Nor does it matter right now whether you may agree or disagree with any of them.) The question under consideration is whether or not a person has to actually be right in their position (or indisputably right) before we may believe the backlash they face is religious persecution. I think this argument misses a part of the Bible’s teaching on the conscience.

In Romans 14, Paul notes that there are certain convictions a Christian might hold that are not actually biblically mandated (e.g., not eating meat, observing holy days). They are wrong to come to the conclusion they have. But Paul also notes something significant: if they truly believe that God does not want them to do something (or vice versa) then it would be sinful for them not to act in line with that belief (Rom 14:5, 14, 22-23). So, if someone is convinced that God wants them to act in a particular way (and there is not a clear command to the contrary, e.g., do not steal), the person should act in that particular way.

I think that would apply to all of the situations above. Whether or not they are right, if a Christian is convinced the church must gather as a whole for worship (even at this time or in these circumstances), that a Christian would be sinning by using his artistic abilities to participate in a gay wedding, that it would be sinful to admit a biological male to a women’s homeless shelter, or that a Christian cannot in any way endorse transition-affirming therapies, then they must act in accordance with those beliefs.

In summary, it is legitimate to consider whether or not a person is suffering “as a Christian” (1 Pet 4:16). But that is not determined by whether those bringing the hardship are doing so explicitly because the person is a Christian or whether any Christian might be ok with taking a different path. The question is: Is the person facing this hardship because they are acting in a way they are convinced they must act in order to properly honor Christ? If so, then they are suffering “as a Christian.” Most conservative evangelicals would view fines, penalties, and arrests for the Christian baker, Christian operator of a women’s homeless shelter, or Christian counselor against transition-affirming therapies as religious persecution. Why should we view the situation for James Coates differently?

21 Responses

  1. Don Johnson


    Where in the Bible are we required to have every member present in any given worship service or on any mandated frequency? I don’t see it at all. In fact, I would wager that most churches do not have everyone present on every Sunday of the year. Usually someone misses, for some reason or other. Are they always in sin when they miss?

    Trying to compare this to the Christian baker and so on is really irrelevant. Arguments on those issues have their place, but they are clearly interfering with matters to which the Bible speaks directly. The majority of churches in Alberta are meeting in cooperation with the guidelines they are under. Health authority is a legitimate venue of government regulation. Our services are limited in size all the time. Your church building has an occupancy limit established by the state. If you exceed that limit and have an emergency, you can be liable for the damages that ensue.

    This man is in clear defiance of legitimate governmental authority and now has criminal charges against him. He could be free today if he would cooperate, but he piously claims “conscience” and sits in jail. I’m quite fine with that. Perhaps the Lord will teach him a lesson.

    However, the lesson will be more difficult to learn if American enablers, who don’t understand the situation in Canada at all, continue to offer their loud support.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

    1. Ben Edwards


      Since my goal here is not to determine whether or not Coates/Grace Life were right in their decision, I’m not going to attempt to discuss whether the Bible demands that the whole body gather/assemble. Instead, I’ll just note that you seem to be making the 3rd argument in this post, that Coates is wrong to make the stand he has. He may be convinced that he and the church needed to take this path, but they are simply wrong. But that is exactly why the Christian baker is relevant. Let me try to show you:

      “Where in the Bible are we forbidden from providing services to someone who is in sin (e.g., a gay couple getting married)? Where does it say you can’t bake a cake for someone like that? Can Christians also not bake cakes for people living together unmarried? Yes, the Bible may be opposed to homosexuality, but I don’t see anywhere at all where it says Christians can’t treat sinners with dignity and respect. In fact, I would wager that most Christians regularly serve gay couples in their businesses. Are they sinning?

      The majority of Christians have no problem with this issue now and would happily comply with these anti-discrimination laws. And fighting discrimination is a legitimate aspect of government regulation. If you open a business to serve the public, you should be held responsible if you discriminate.

      The Christian baker is in clear defiance of legitimate governmental authority and now has to deal with the government imposed consequences against him. He could have avoided all of these issues if he had simply cooperated, but he ‘piously” claims his “conscience” would be violated if he did that and now will be forced to close his business and pay massive fines. I’m quite fine with that. Perhaps the Lord will teach him a lesson.”

      That’s why the Christian baker and other examples are relevant. The argument you are making is the same argument other Christians are making against him/them. Thankfully, for now most conservative Christians are willing to recognize that as religious persecution. My fear is that, if we actually believe the arguments being made now to try to say Coates is not facing persecution, we will convince ourselves and others to use those same arguments against other kinds of persecution.

      And, fwiw, I’m not sure how you are able to determine Coates motives to know whether or not his appeal to conscience is genuine.


    2. Phil Johnston

      You obviously didn’t understand what the author said. Here it is in a rhyme: a sin for me but not for thee. Here’s an example:the Bible says nothing specific about homeschooling but, for me, it would be a sin to do anything else. If the government came in and punished me for homeschooling then I would be persecuted and, hopefully, other Christians would support that.

    3. John

      To Don Johnson,

      The government has no authority regarding Jesus Church… Shepherds of the church are responsible for the flock and if they are telling some of their flock to stay home they are not shepherding they are not being shepherded you cannot have a television set do that for you… How do you livestream life on life Jesus said go and make disciples and teach them to observe and the best and only way to do that is hands on… The Bible in fact does reference attendance be an Acts chapter 2 as well as in Hebrews 10 both chapters as well as many letters of Paul referencing Timothy telling him that men would want teachers that tickle their ears in the last times teachers cannot do their job via a screen…. Jesus own example was that his disciples were with him…. The same with John the Baptist the same with every other Jewish leader They had disciples They had students who followed them when Jesus said follow me He didn’t say look at me online…. Please don’t twist the Bible or ignore the greater principles that come from it to suit lack of attendance lack of courage andstanding with Christ

  2. B. Johnson

    In the myriad of posts I’ve seen discussing this topic, only one has brought up Daniel 6, “Now when Daniel knew that the writing was signed, he went home. And in his upper room, with his windows open toward Jerusalem, he knelt down on his knees three times that day, and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as was his custom since early days.”  (Dan 6:10) There was no specific command for Daniel to pray, and not only did he disobey a governmental decree, he disobeyed in front of the window! The law Darius signed “only” stipulated that one was to forgo prayer for 30 days. Was Daniel wrong to defy the decree? Just wondering.

    1. Ben Edwards

      While it can be challenging at times to definitively say whether an action in a biblical narrative was right or wrong, I think most people have recognized Daniel was right to defy the decree. The challenge is in determining how to apply that to other situations/scenarios, including ones we are facing today (and whether his action is always the binding one Christians must take or simply a legitimate option they may take). And since my goal in this post is not to do that, I leave that to others for now 🙂

  3. Fred Ziffel

    Coates starts with something like “the assembly must assemble in order to be an assembly.” Slicing off in 15% sections (current AB orders) means the assembly cannot assemble. Therefore, by definition, the government is prohibiting the assembly from assembling, therefore we cannot obey.

    I don’t think Don would say that midweek home bible studies constitute “the assembly?” Many pastors would say that churches with multi-campuses or multi-services are really multi-churches (assemblies).

    And FWIW, it is a Canadian and DBTS grad in Calgary taking the same position as Coates. Perhaps he will be the next one in jail.

  4. The cases of the cake maker and the photographer don’t qualify as religious persecution either, in my view. The cases involved illegal oppression of first amendment rights–and in the Colorado case, the government agency involved said some openly bigoted things. But what you have in those cases is inevitable friction where the interests of the state conflict with the interests of individuals with incompatible religious beliefs.
    Even in the best case scenario, there’s always going to be some complications at the boundaries.

    But accepting for argument that the photographer and cake maker cases are persecution, there are some distinctions that can be made: it’s not clear that that the photographer and cake maker could make accommodations to comply with government without sacrificing the core purpose of their businesses. In most of these COVID restriction cases, there are options to comply that don’t require disobedience to Christ or a genuine threat to the core ‘business’ of the church. Digital meeting is still meeting, for example, though admittedly it’s meeting of a lower quality. And meeting in person in smaller groups is–as others have pointed out–neither disobedient nor a threat to the core business of the church.

    So… the test cases of photographer and cakemaker are a useful analytical tool, but they don’t establish that these congregations are being persecuted.

    1. Ben Edwards


      I assume you are including the idea that the restrictions on churches are considered “temporary” in order to say they are not a threat to the “core business” of the church. If not, then I think we would have a strong disagreement in ecclesiology as to what constitutes a church and what a church must do.

      I’m not sure the issue of something being “core” or “essential” should be a defining factor for Christian persecution either. First, I think we’d have a hard time defining what is core vs. what is peripheral. That is in part because the Christian faith is not designed to be pared down to a handful of beliefs and actions but is a entire set of doctrines and behaviors that is to govern all of a Christian’s life. Part of our problem is we have begun to buy into the idea that religion is a “private” matter that has no place in the “public” square, as though Christianity is just something you are to practice on Sundays or in your heart instead of living every aspect of your life as a Christian.

      Second, I think you are confusing business/church with individual Christian. Persecution does not primarily come against institutions but against individuals. Thus, the issue is not limited to the “purpose of the business” (FWIW, while I’ve used both terms, my focus is less on what might be construed in society at large as religious persecution but more what biblically believers should see as Christian persecution, or “suffering as a Christian.”)

      Third, persecution includes things like slander or having people say evil things about you falsely, and I’m not sure how to limit that only to the “core” or “essential” aspects of a person’s business (let alone his life).

      I’m curious, since you seem to have a more narrow definition of persecution than most: what constitutes Christian persecution for you?

  5. John Brock

    The bigger issue is: “who defines or determines whether a particular religious belief is legitimate?” We err if we see religious liberty as merely protecting Biblically obedient Christians. So, arguing whether a particular act is Biblically mandated or not misses the point. religious liberty must protect those who simply “believe” that an act should or should not be practiced based on a religious “belief” alone; regardless of its logic or tie to someones idea of orthodoxy. Do we want governments to be evaluating the legitimacy or sincerity of ones religious beliefs? In the U.S., the Supreme Court has rejected any kind of tribunal to evaluate religious beliefs. All needed is a statement that a behaviors is religiously based. This is not absolute as in the case of Mormons and polygamy. Though one wonders what the outcome of such a case would be were it tried today. So religious liberty protects all kinds of odd actions (snake handling for example). Where religious liberty claims are most problematic are when ones religious belief clashes with another persons general liberty. So if I have areligious belief that no-one should eat meat, I cannot force a neighbor to conform to my belief no matter how strongly I believe that it should not be allowed. What is truly challenging, are situations where the damage to others is speculative or trivial. Is meeting in a Church really going to cause death or is it merely possible? And if the bar only has to be so low as to be unlikely, then, a whole boat load of religiously motivated activities could be banned. Historically, religious liberty is best preserved when adherents are willing to suffer rather than to violate their beliefs. Such commitments have resulted in Amish exemption from compulsory education and the right to home school your children. Both of these common practice were once illegal but are now freedoms we enjoy because some were willing to continue practicing their religious beliefs to the point of incarceration, loss of property and public shaming. Why should we think that religious liberty comes without a price tag?

    1. Ben Edwards


      You bring up an important point, but I will just clarify that broader religious persecution is not my focus. Instead, I’m trying to consider, for believers, whether or not we should think of ourselves or others as facing Christian persecution, or suffering as a Christian. And to answer that question, it does what the Bible has to say.

      And while my preference would be to have broad religious liberty in society, it seems increasingly likely that we will not be living in a country (and, perhaps just as importantly, a society) that values religious liberty. So when should we be willing to take a stand, and when should we in at least some sense stand with other Christians? That’s the kind of question I’m trying to answer.


  6. Nathan Hitz

    Good point, John.

    When we have given over to government the authority to determine what is religious activity; we have already ceded a large basis of what is foundational to religious liberty.

  7. Ben, sadly this issue is dividing the brethren in Canada. A very small number of men have taken this this far. Jacob Reaume in Ontario, a Southern grad, and his church were just fined 38k and 45k for legal fees in conjunction with their actions re: the virus. In the end, he agreed to abide by the rules unless he changed his mind yesterday. He did not go to jail. UHaving served the Lord for 19 yrs in Canada, I know men across the country and across the conservative spectrum. To a man, they all think this is the wrong hill to die on. The Church in Canada is facing serious challenges in the days ahead. Bill C6 will prohibit recommending conversion therapy counseling. They are also facing MAID—Medical Assistance in Dying which could be made available for virtually anyone. Is it really a hardship to practice social distancing and wear masks? GraceLife won’t do either. Neither will they voluntarily reduce the size of their meetings. They will meet to the fire code limits. But even in this they have conceded the government’s rules. Why limit the audience to the fire code number in the first place? So by obeying some rules but not others, isn’t this inconsistent? We can debate all day long on the virtues of the COVID rules. I see no reason why for testimony sake GraceLife cannot accommodate for the short haul. Ministry is not curtailed, it must just take a different shape. God deliver us in these days of challenge. Ben, most American Christians do not understand what is happening in Canada.

    1. Fred Ziffel

      Jeff – bad information and straw man arguments: 1) The Ontario government changed its guidelines so that instead of 10 people, churches can now have 30% capacity. Jacob Reaume stood and the Ontario government blinked. 2) Perhaps you missed the fact that in your former city of ministry, Windsor, ON, Dr. Aaron Rock has been at the forefront of refusal to abide by the government restrictions on ministry. 3) Many conservative churches across the country have ignored some or other of the gathering restrictions but done it under the radar. I could bring you to assemblies that have gathered in farmer’s machine sheds to avoid having the RCMP crash their Sunday service. So many of the restrictions are nothing more than political posturing. 4) Pointing to other violations and restrictions as a means to avoid the issue in front of us is yelling – hey, look over there, a squirrel! 5) Observing fire code restrictions is a chalk and cheese comparison to government prohibiting or severely and specifically restricting religious gatherings. 6) I don’t get it – why is religious prosecution in Canada off limits for non-Canadian to discuss?

    2. Ben Edwards


      It seems like you are addressing whether it was right or wise for Coates/Grace Life to act as they have, but as I said it is not my desire at this time to offer that evaluation. Thus, I’d suggest my argument does not depend on the context (US, Canada, China, etc.) but is instead an attempt at a more universal question: what is Christian persecution, or suffering as a Christian? And I think at a minimum it entails a believer facing opposition for doing what he believes he must do in light of God’s Word (his hopefully Scripture-informed conscience).

      So why will they not social distance, wear masks, limit the size of their meetings, etc? The best answer I can offer the one they have given: they believe they would be sinfully yielding their God-given responsibility as a church/pastors to the government. They may be wrong, but I think they have to follow their conscience in that.


  8. Jeff Straub

    Fred. The Ontario government blinked? 83k in fines is blinking? Are you a Canadian? If you are you likely know more than I do on this. I used to pastor in Windsor. I do not know Aaron as he came after I left. But my understanding is that both Aaron and Jacob are abiding by the COVID rules, at least partially.

  9. Don Johnson

    Hi Ben

    Well, someone mentioned that there was a discussion here partially in response to my comment above. Lest I be thought of as a troll, I would like to rejoin the conversation. (Didn’t mean to just comment and run.)

    I can’t respond to everything in the subsequent comments, so I’ll limit myself to a few points.

    First, with respect the the baker and/or photographer, I fail to see how they are parallel cases. As I recall the situation with the baker in particular, he had baked cakes for these same customers previously. He wasn’t refusing to serve them in his business. However, they requested him to offer an expression of support for their actions when they asked for a wedding cake. Am I remembering these details correctly? What the customers and the state were trying to do was coerce his *expression* by composing a message of support on the cake. It is this coercion that constitutes religious persecution. They haven’t proved discrimination, they simply tried to coerce expression.

    Back to the Alberta case, you seem to argue that as long as someone claims a “religious conscientious belief” that legitimates it and the government must back off. Is that a fair summation of your view?

    I am willing to stand up and suffer if someone says, “You can’t preach in the name of Christ.” Or says “you must worship the emperor” (almost said “Trump”), or you must abort your babies (ala Moses in Egypt or Christians in China today).

    But if the government shuts down public assembly (or restricts it) during an emergency situation? Why do governments have emergency powers? If you have a hurricane or an earthquake or some such massive disaster and the government issues a stay home order, Christians get to disobey simply because they have a conviction that they must meet on Sunday? I don’t think that works. This is one of those situations, for the most part.

    There is some discrimination going on, I think, when the restrictions are applied unevenly. For example, in BC right now, churches are not allowed to meet. AA can meet (in church buildings, even) but not churches. You can go to Costco by the hundreds, but not to church. There is a case working its way through the courts here that seems hopeful on these grounds. Yet I don’t see how we can claim we are exempt from governmental emergency powers. That is nuts and it has nothing to do with repressing religious beliefs or forcing an expression against one’s conscience.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

    1. Ben Edwards


      I don’t have the time or desire right now to work through everything you said, but just wanted to say that you did not offer a fair summation of my view. So let me try to clarify and restate it.

      First, my focus is not on what the government must or must not do. As a pastor, I’m primarily concerned with what the Christian must do, regardless of what the government does or does not do.

      Second, I’m not sure framing it as a person who “claims a religious conscientious belief” is very helpful. I would prefer to use the biblical language of Romans 14: is fully convinced in his own mind and does something or refused to do something in honor of the Lord (and is therefore accepted/welcomed by Him).

      So if that is the case (someone is in the position I describe above) they would be sinning to act otherwise: e.g., if they truly believe they must do something in order to honor God (and there is not clear Scriptural teaching to the contrary) then not to do so would be sinning. And since we must obey God rather than men, it doesn’t matter if the government says not to do it. Because in this scenario, if they listened to government they would actually be obeying man rather than God.

      And Romans 14 provides the framework for me, as a fellow believer, to look at the situation and conclude: “I don’t believe the stance this person is taking is required of me or other Christians (i.e., they have come to the wrong conclusion) but I do not believe that they are sinfully bringing this opposition on themselves because they are seeking to obey God in this area in accordance with their conviction (since if they did otherwise the Bible clearly says they would be sinning, and I cannot encourage a fellow believer to sin).”

      Hope that clarifies it a bit.


      1. Don Johnson

        Thanks, Ben, that does clarify your view.

        I think we agree on this: Romans 14 issues are issues that are matters of indifference. (adiaphora, as Bauder likes to say.) You agree with that, I think, as you say, “and there is not clear Scriptural teaching to the contrary.” In other words, the Scripture doesn’t say one way or the other, so fill your boots and don’t judge.

        However, in this situation, Coates refuses to follow the government orders (which have the force of law behind them). The orders are not, “Don’t preach in the name of Christ,” but are instead, “limit your assembly and follow safe practices when assembled.”

        The Bible clearly says in 1 Pt 2.13, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution” (kjv “every ordinance of man.”) Verse 15 says “this is the will of God.” Romans 13.1 says, “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities.”

        For someone to simply defy the government, they have a very high bar to cross. It isn’t a matter of indifference. There are very few exceptions to this. One of them is “don’t preach in the name of Jesus,” but Coates isn’t arguing that one because the government hasn’t taken that position.

        Instead, he is arguing a novel interpretation of Heb 10, insisting that the whole church must gather every Sunday, or else disobey God. Yet, apparently he *is* willing to agree to limit his assemblies to his fire code regulations – they don’t fill the building beyond its fire code capacity. So… what does that do to his argument?

        Anyway, I realize we all have better things to do than argue on the internet! So I don’t know if there is much more to add.

        Thanks for the interaction.

        Don Johnson
        Jer 33.3

        1. Ben Edwards


          Glad to hear we are at least understanding each other (or understanding each other more) even if we do not agree.