Christians in New Zealand stand for freedom of worship

5 May 2023

A guest post from Holly Baines explaining the work of Free To Be Church in New Zealand and how Christian Concern encouraged them to stand for the freedom to worship

In 2020, the world stood still.

COVID swept the globe, leaving in its wake an unprecedented influx of governmental overreach, unlawful human-rights restrictions, and the devaluing of public worship to merely an optional social gathering. The government usurped control of every aspect of life, whether spiritual, communal, familial, or physical, and enforced restrictions far beyond the scope of their biblical and lawful jurisdictional authority.

In New Zealand, the severe lack of appreciation for the importance of freedom of worship and in-person church gatherings was evident with mandatory church closures nationwide.

Pastors faced fines for holding in-person gatherings, and the government publicly shamed churches that decided to remain open to all by labelling them uncaring, unchristian, and a danger to the public.

Personal views on public safety, the necessity of in-person church meetings, conscientious objection to mass medical intervention, the spheres of authority, and the separation of church and state faced unforeseen challenges. As COVID overnight became established as the primary world concern, Kiwi churches had to form biblical convictions on issues that had never been relevant before.

Throughout these lockdown years, the precedent was set that the government can override any human right for any duration and take control of the other spheres of authority (the church and the family) as long as they feel justified.

This precedent is what prompted a small group of Kiwi pastors to take legal action to challenge this overreach and set a new precedent that upholds the authority of Christ as the Head of the church and the sovereignty of the church over public worship. And so, they established Free to Be Church (FTBC).

New Zealand church leaders

The theological foundation for Free to Be Church

Obedience to the governing authorities is a complex issue. Scripture commands Christians to honour their rulers, to be subject to them, and to not resist the authorities that God has appointed. Scripture also clearly states that established rulers exist to promote justice, avenge wrongdoing, and restrain evil (Rom 13:1-7, 1 Tim 2:1-2, 1 Pet 2:13-17).

This was a far cry from the New Zealand government during COVID, a government that classified abortion an essential service and public worship a non-essential social gathering.

Free To Be Church holds the conviction that, whilst Christians must joyfully submit to all rulers and laws in most circumstances, they are not to obey when that obedience constitutes direct disobedience to God.

Christ, not the government, is the Head of the church (Ephesians 1:22; 5:23; Colossians 1:18), and He is sovereign over every earthly authority and has instituted them to fulfil His commands (1 Timothy 6:15; Revelation 17:14; 19:16).

Therefore, when an authority commands what God forbids or forbids what God commands, Christians have a duty to humbly disobey; where there is a conflict of commands, the Christian faith necessitates that they submit to Scripture as the ultimate authority.

FTBC believes there are three ‘spheres’ of authority instituted by God: the family, the church, and the government. The family manages the nurture of its members, the church ministers to the spiritual and physical needs of Christians and the surrounding community, and the government wields the sword of justice and protects the nation’s borders. The spheres overlap and interact but must not overreach their jurisdictional boundaries.

In an open letter to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, FTBC board members defined these jurisdictional boundaries: “The Church does not have the right to intervene in the affairs of individual families and ignore parental authority. Parents do not have authority to manage civil matters while circumventing government officials. And similarly, government officials have no right to interfere in ecclesiastical matters in a way that undermines or disregards the God-given authority of pastors and elders.”

When the God-instituted rulers step outside of their sphere and usurp the sovereignty of the other God-ordained authorities, they are no longer acting in their biblical role. Obedience to Christ sometimes necessitates disobedience to an ungodly government.

The conviction that Christ is the Head of the church is foundational to the board members conclusion that “The honour that we [as Christians] rightly owe our earthly governors and magistrates (Romans 13:7) does not include compliance when such officials attempt to subvert sound doctrine, corrupt biblical morality, exercise ecclesiastical authority, or supplant Jesus Christ as head of the Church in any other way. These are our religious beliefs and any infringement upon them prohibits the practicing of our faith.”

The unlawful prohibition of the practicing of their faith is what fuels these pastor’s efforts to restore the religious rights of New Zealand Christians, as stated in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990: “Every person has the right to manifest that person’s religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, or teaching, either individually or in community with others, and either in public or in private…Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.”

Christian Concern involvement

One of the Free to Be Church board members discovered Christian Concern’s involvement in the successful Scottish judicial review in March 2021, in which the Scottish High Court declared the closing of churches for public worship unconstitutional and repealed the church mandates.

This inspired the board members to research and pursue whatever legal means they could implement to challenge the church meeting restrictions in New Zealand and create a legal bedrock for freedom of worship for future generations.

Christian Concern were instrumental in providing the framework for kickstarting legal action and their support and prior work in Scotland has been key in understanding how best to pursue the same success here in New Zealand.

On 20 September 2021, with Auckland still in Level 4 lockdown, Free to Be Church was established to defend religious freedom in New Zealand.

Legal path and current progress

Shortly after the formation of Free to Be Church, two New Zealand lawyers were appointed to research the legal options available. As their research progressed, the lawyers advised the board members to file a High Court Proceeding, rather than the original Judicial Review.

However, in March 2022, this was reverted to a judicial review, as multiple other judicial reviews were being filed against the government at the same time, and the board members hoped this mounting public pressure would persuade the government to drop the mandates.

In June 2022, the hearing took place at the High Court in Wellington, and the verdict was announced on 16 August 2022. Despite substantial public support for the court case and a widespread frustration at the extended strict vaccine mandates, the Court declared the government justified in denying the right to worship.

Although disappointed by the court ruling, FTBC has remained steadfast in their conviction on the essentiality of in-person worship and the unbiblical overreach of the government in prohibiting church services.

A King’s Counsel and FTBC’s original lawyers recommended filing an appeal, which will take place on 3 August 2023.

Regardless of the appeal outcome, the board members remain dedicated to seeking legal recognition of the biblical principle of sphere sovereignty, as it pertains to local church meetings.

Christ is the Head of the church, and the government does not possess the jurisdictional authority to dictate terms for church gatherings, determine who to exclude from attending, or decide whether worship services are essential or merely social catchups.

Medical status has never been, and will never be, permissible grounds for determining who may worship Christ, fellowship with other believers, and participate in the means of grace. If Christ made no distinction between the unclean and the clean, the pharisee and the prostitute, or the wealthy and the poverty-stricken, there is no valid reason why any individual or governing authority may exclude someone from worshipping simply because of their medical choices.

The government’s purpose is to establish law and order, seek justice, and protect human rights, not to establish medical conformity, mandate public safety, and segregate society. The church’s responsibility is to minister to the spiritual needs of church members, reach the community with the gospel, and show that salvation in Christ’s redeeming work on the cross is available to all, regardless of ethnicity, social situation, gender, or medical status.

What’s Next?

Until the appeal hearing, Free to Be Church will continue to promote their vision of a nation where the right to worship is entrenched in our legal system and unable to be prohibited for the sake of ambiguous public safety.

In times of public danger, the church is where many people run for comfort, wisdom, and the security of knowing the church is always ready to minister to their spiritual needs. A public safety risk cannot negate the importance of public Christian worship; rather, it increases the need for the church to be active and involved in the community despite the risk.

Therefore, FTBC will continue to enable churches and church members to understand the spheres of authority, their distinct roles, and their jurisdictional limitations. Additionally, they are pursuing whatever legal and promotional means available to increase public pressure for the Court of Appeal to uphold the church’s right to worship and the sovereignty of the church in matters to its sphere of authority.

To support the Free to Be Church appeal and the cause for religious freedom in New Zealand, please visit this link to donate or sign up for updates on the appeal case on 3 August 2023.

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