Just over a year ago, the Province of Ontario seized our church building and charged me, along with all our elders, with contempt of court for the second time. The Province, claiming to be acting in the public good, had set limits on church attendance, and we had no regard for them. We, ourselves claiming to be acting for the good, opened the church doors to our congregation and community. Police chased our people down after services, media dumped on us, and other pastors chastised us. Some claimed Ontario churches faced “minor inconveniences” but certainly not persecution. After all, the province did not prohibit the preaching of the cross, but it only limited the number of persons who could assemble.
In the 17th century, John Bunyan faced a similar situation and interacted with like arguments. Bunyan, the famed Puritan and author of Pilgrim’s Progress, was a Baptist minister who refused to turn persons away from congregating to hear him preach. The English Crown forbade such unlicensed gatherings, or “conventicles” as they called the meetings, claiming it was for the public good. Bunyan maintained he acted for the good, so he disregarded the Crown, gathered congregations, and preached to them. Bunyan’s conflict with the state, like ours, was a conflict over the definition of good. Our definition of good can be likened to Bunyan’s, and Ontario’s definition to the Crown’s definition in Bunyan’s day.
Bunyan, the first Puritan arrested under King Charles II whose reign was restored just prior to his arrest, was taken into custody November 12, 1660. Seven weeks later he stood before a judge, Justice Keelin, charged with being “a common upholder of several unlawful meetings and conventicles, to the great disturbance and distraction of the good subjects of this kingdom, contrary to the laws of our sovereign lord the King.”1 The judge ordered Bunyan to comply, lest he be “be banished from the realm” or he “must stretch by the neck.”2 Bunyan famously replied, “[If] I was out of prison to-day I would preach the gospel again to-morrow, by the help of God.”3 Without context, Bunyan’s reply might seem as if his only crime was preaching the Gospel, but the charges, as noted above and as read in the broader context, indicate he was arrested for gathering a crowd.
A few months after standing before Justice Keelin, a Clerk of the Peace, Mr. Cobb, visited him on April 3, 1661. Bunyan explained the purpose of the visit: “[Mr. Cobb] came to admonish me, according to the tenor of that Law by which I was in Prison.”4 Bunyan’s record of the meeting reveals that they imprisoned him because, like us, he would not distinguish between the preaching the of the Gospel and gathering an assembly to hear the preaching of the Gospel. He saw the gathering as a necessary good, while the state disagreed.
The back and forth between the two exposes the true issue – a disagreement between Bunyan and the state over the definition of good. Cobb saw the state’s assembly ban as good, but Bunyan believed assemblies to be good. So, they collided. Cobb warned Bunyan: “[You] must submit to the laws of the land, and leave off those meetings which you was wont to have; for the statute law is directly against it.”5 Bunyan, notwithstanding Cobb’s interpretation of the law, asserted that his actions were good: “My end in meeting with others is simply to do as much good as I can, by exhortation and counsel.”6 Cobb countered, asserting that the law is good, as it was designed to prevent civil uprisings and bloodshed. As an historical pretext to his arrest and only a few weeks prior, a religious fanatic, who was a member of the notorious Fifth Monarchy, amassed a small crowd in London in an attempt to overthrow the newly restored King Charles II, killing many in the process.7 The insurrection was squashed, but the Crown and the general public were on edge, fearful of more uprisings. They enforced assembly bans on unlicensed religious services to prevent religious zealots from fomenting more plots to “the ruin of the kingdom and commonwealth.”8 Bunyan was under police surveillance prior to his arrest because the authorities feared he was about “to do some fearful business, to the destruction of the country,”9 and at his arrest he learned they suspected that his congregation was armed.10 Like our own situation last year in Ontario, the English Crown forbade certain assemblies, claiming the purest motives in an atmosphere characterized by fear and hysteria, for the public good. Asserting that gathering crowds to learn of Christ was good, even while the public was on edge, Bunyan continued, as did we, to gather. It was a battle over the definition of good.
Continuing, Mr. Cobb emphasized the law to Bunyan: “It is your private meetings that the law is against.”11 In other words, the state did not prohibit Bunyan from communicating his beliefs to individuals, but rather prohibited him from gathering crowds. Bunyan challenged the logic: “[If] I may do good to one by my discourse, why may I not do good to two? And if to two, why not to four, and so to eight? &c.”12 Cobb disagreed, but he understood and followed the logic to its end, noting that if Bunyan could gather eight, he could gather one-hundred. Bunyan continued, “I think I should not be forbid to do as much good as I can,” and, “And yet…you say the law tolerates me to discourse with my neighbour… therefore, if I may, by the law, discourse with one, surely it is to do him good; and if I, by discoursing, may do good to one, surely, by the same law, I may do good to many.”13 The Crown, in Bunyan’s case, was fine with Bunyan sharing the Gospel with one person. Interestingly, last year similar arguments were made against us: The state does not forbid preaching or very small gatherings, so therefore it was not persecution. Bunyan, like us, reasoned that if it is good to speak with one, it is also good to speak to many more. Again, the definition of good was on trial.
Moving away from the language of good, Cobb, like our own bureaucrats did last year, appealed to the goodness of being neighbourly while attempting to persuade Bunyan into compliance: “Cannot you submit, and, notwithstanding, do as much good as you can, in a neighbourly way, without having such meetings?”14 In other words, Cobb argued that Bunyan could act neighbourly by submitting to the law while not gathering crowds to hear him preach. Bunyan, like us, maintained that facilitating Christian gatherings was truly neighbourly: “I dare not but exercise that gift which God hath given me for the good of the people.”15 To Bunyan, turning persons away from hearing him preach would render him a poor steward of God’s giftings and a bad neighbour to those who would listen to him. Jesus commanded us to be neighbourly, so all parties agreed that neighbourliness was good, but, again, they disagreed over its definition.
Mr. Cobb attempted a compromise with Bunyan, asking him to stop gathering crowds temporarily: “[What] if you should forbear awhile, and sit still, till you see further how things will go?”16 Like Cobb, many pastors last year asserted that a temporary prohibition on gathering was acceptable. Bunyan, asserting that a temporary compromise would render him a traitor to Christ and imperil his soul, quoted the famed 14th century English outlaw preacher John Wycliff: “Wicliffe saith, that he which leaveth off preaching and hearing of the Word of God for fear of excommunication of men, he is already excommunicated of God, and shall in the day of judgment be counted a traitor to Christ.”17 Ultimately, Bunyan, like us, was beholden to God over civil government for the definition of good, and, to him, God’s definition of good included preaching to as many as would gather. To abandon goodness for fear of man was akin to abandoning his Saviour.
Cobb, alluding to Romans 13:1, argued that obedience to the state was good: “You know…that the Scripture saith ‘the powers that be are ordained of God.’”18 Cobb continued, “the King then commands you, that you should not have any private meetings; because it is against his law, and he is ordained of God, therefore you should not have any.”19 Referencing the legal troubles of Christ and the Apostle Paul, Bunyan justified his disobedience to the state because the state’s laws were not good: “I hope you will not say that either Paul, or Christ, were such as deny magistracy, and so sinned against God in slighting the ordinance.”20 Scripture bound his conscience to do good, and good meant violating the king’s assembly bans. In our own situation last year, the pastors who advocated for compliance often used Romans 13 the same way as Cobb, arguing that if the state, which is appointed by God, says gatherings are not good then gatherings are not good. Yet, Bunyan saw them as good because God sees them as good. It was a conflict over the definition of good.
Whether in Bunyan’s day or in ours, tyrants rarely claim to operate for bad. They claim their antics are for good, and they might even believe themselves. When Christians find themselves in conflict with the state it is typically over the definition of good. Christians believe in one definition of good, while the state believes a contrary definition. Collision ensues. Like Bunyan, our church with others asserted that gathering congregations to hear of Christ is good. Like the Crown of Bunyan’s time, our civil government prohibited gatherings for what they deemed the public good. Conflict ensued.
Other churches complied with the state, and many did so because they believed the state’s definition of good over God’s definition. They heard good news from the civil government, and that drowned out the good news of Christ’s kingship over the world. They complied. Some even chastised the churches who gathered. To justify their compliance, they used many of the same arguments that Bunyan’s persecutors used.
I truly believe that history and God Himself will vindicate our actions, just as Bunyan has also been vindicated. In fact, I sense we are being vindicated much quicker than I had earlier anticipated. My primary concern in writing this is for the churches who compromised and attacked the ones who didn’t. I fear that their lampstands will permanently be removed, but I would sooner they repent and flourish. Many seem content to move on without reflecting on their actions, desiring to forget about the last two years. God saw it all, and it’s all written in His record. It won’t be forgotten. Cancelling the worship of Christ, while attacking the ones who did gather to worship, is a decision that must be reflected upon soberly. It did not please the Lord of the Church, and He will not be pacified by covering the fruitlessness with fig leaves. He promises forgiveness and heavenly power, but that restoration would be a miracle from heaven that will likely only begin with public repentance to the Lamb who was slain to receive the worship of His Church.