A Canadian pastor who was released from jail last week told his congregation Sunday he was strengthened by the support and prayers of Christians around the world.
Tim Stephens, the pastor of Fairview Baptist Church in Calgary, was released July 1, more than two weeks after he was arrested for holding church services in violation of provincial COVID-19 health restrictions.
"We were in jail … for 17 nights and 18 days," an emotional Stephens said during a sermon that spanned more than an hour. "And when you're there that long writing down, you have a lot on your mind, and you want to now share it."
The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, which represented Stephens, announced July 1 he had been freed from jail and that Fairview Baptist's building had been released from government seizure. Stephens and the congregation had been worshiping underground, outdoors, in undisclosed locations. He was arrested in June at his home after a police helicopter spotted the service.
Jay Cameron, litigation director for the Justice Centre, criticized the Alberta government for arresting not only Stephens but also two other pastors.
"[The] government's persecution of Christians for the 'crime' of peacefully assembling for worship will not, and must not be forgotten," Cameron said.
Tears in his eyes, Stephens told the congregation he was "encouraged that many of you were strengthened and emboldened in your faith." Saying his faith "feels weak," he said, "to know that you're being strengthened gives me strength."
"Each day, He sustained me and each day I heard of His work among you and in the world," Stephens said.
Stephens preached from Matthew 10, in which Jesus told the disciples they would face persecution.
"This text in Matthew 10 talks about these increasing consequences – this opposition that people face as they stand for the Lord Jesus Christ," Stephens said.
"The last 17 nights I've spent in jail," he said, "have given me opportunities to declare the glory of Christ, within and without. [There] never has been a time in my life when I've been so hated by people. But never has there been a time in my life when I felt so loved by people [at] the same time. Don't fear men. Shout from the rooftops that Jesus Christ is King of all kings.
"... Fear God. Jesus said [that] God is the one who is going to judge and God is the one who is going to care for you."
In a blog this summer, Stephens acknowledged COVID-19 is "serious" but argued the "cure should not be worse than the disease," pointing to problems of mental health and suicide. His church had not had a "single transmission" of COVID-19, he wrote.
At the time, church worship services were limited to only 15 people.
"Restricting the church to 15 people – which essentially restricts the church from gathering – is against the will of Christ and against the conscience of many who desire to worship the Lord of glory according to his word," Stephens wrote.
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Photo courtesy: ©Fairview Baptist Church Screenshot
Video courtesy: ©Fairview Baptist Church
Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.