For those of you who may not know me, my name is Scott Ross and I am the Pastor at North Shuswap Christian Fellowship in the Shuswap region of British Columbia Canada. I am writing this article because I want to address the church, particularly those mature believers who hold membership positions in their local congregation.
In the church there are disagreements over the veracity of the claims surrounding Covid-19. We haven’t experienced a church split in any official capacity and I thank the Lord that we have managed to maintain an attitude of graciousness in the midst of disagreement.
In our church, you won’t hear on Sunday what I call ‘COVID sermons’. I may speak about it from time to time in order to illustrate the practicality of God’s Word in the midst of a global pandemic that causes people to be afraid or angry and how the Gospel is our hope in the midst of it; but not an entire sermon. This is based on the conviction that our entire lives seem to have been engulfed by this topic. I will at times jokingly say to people, “What did we talk about before COVID?”. The Sunday sermon and the service overall is set aside to focus our attention on God and His power, His graciousness, His generosity, and His steadfast love. I believe that tensions arise in the congregation when we take our focus off of Christ.
However, I am compelled to speak at this point because of the increase of hostilities (yes, even within the Church) over Public Health restrictions in general, and vaccines/vaccine passes in particular.
I hear stories of church splits over this issue, of new church plants grounded not on the basis of the Great Commission, but on the basis of opinions on masks and vaccine status. In general, I hear and experience tensions within congregations over what that congregation’s position is or ought to be.
As a result, we are seeing before our eyes a dividing wall being built up that separates (both metaphorically and literally) the Body of Christ into these two camps of vaccinated and unvaccinated. I would like to set the record straight right away that I’m not ‘anti-split’ when it comes to churches because I believe God’s Word is not ‘anti-split’. So called, ‘factions,’ are going to exist in churches until we all reach the finish line of eternity where there will be no factions, but all will be one in Christ, but until then Paul warns us about division:
For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. (1 Corinthians 11:18-19)
One of the values of society where we live as a Canadians is that everyone gets along and no one rocks the boat because no one wants to be potentially seen as being mean or divisive. But the word of God actually says the opposite, that factions are going to exist and sometimes (definitely not always) that is a good thing because there may be a certain group that has gone off in the weeds and is actively leading others astray from the truth. So, maybe a separation is a good thing in order to preserve the message of the Gospel. There is a time and a place for that.
However, if a faction does arise, we need to determine whether it is something worth fracturing over, what is often called a ‘top tier’ issue like whether God exists, if Jesus is God, if He rose from the dead, or if there is such a thing as sin; those doctrines which are the fundamentals of the faith. The line for determining ‘top-tier’ issues has changed very recently for a lot of churches.
The association of churches which we belong to has ten points in the Doctrinal Statement, lining out the fundamentals of the faith (EFCC). Our doctrinal statement used to have twelve points that were considered top-tier matters of faith, but now it only has ten. So, the question we need to ask is: Why? What changed? The Doctrinal Statement changed because it was determined that your belief on the end-times should not be a barrier to membership in local congregation. The association decided that this isn’t a top tier issue that was given top tier status, even though it is more of a second-tier subject. So, you can be an amillenialist, premillennialist or postmillennialist and be a member of the church.
So, the other question we need to answer when it comes to vaccinated/unvaccinated and all the baggage that goes along with that topic is: what tier of faith issue are we talking about here? Is it first, second, third, fourth, or even lower?
Is Covid worth dividing over?
I hope there can be at least a solid majority agreement that our thoughts and opinions about Covid-19 in general and vaccines in particular are not a top tier issue. I do not see how the deity of Christ and vaccines can occupy the same space in terms of their importance. If you think they do belong on the same tier then that is an entirely different issue for another time. Anything after first tier, there is going to be some variation depending on your position so rather than going through all the tiers, I’ll put forth the second-tier, highest position after the fundamentals of the faith and the lowest position (maybe fifth or sixths or for some of you not even on the chart at all).
If the question of vaccines is a second-tier issue to you, then I’m going to assume that the argument goes something like this (this is the general idea at least):
- biblically, human life is of great value (we are made in the image of God);
- COVID is an illness that threatens human life; therefore,
- we should do everything that we can to protect human life.
If A+B=C, then COVID restrictions, vaccinations, restriction of freedoms to protect the sanctity of human life is important, and should even be mandatory.
If the question of vaccines is a third or fourth-tier issue to you (or lower), then I am going to assume that the argument goes something like this:
- Part of being created in God’s image means that God has given us the freedom to choose for ourselves what we would like to do,
- Covid is an illness that threatens human life, but also the dignity of human life because of the restrictions that have been put in place; therefore,
- I am going to exercise my God given right to choose for myself.
This is based on the conviction that Covid is not serious enough to warrant such a revoking of basic human freedoms. Do what must be done to protect the vulnerable and those with compromised immune systems but don’t be heavy handed in restricting everyone.
What is the Real Concern?
While the arguments themselves may vary to some degree, at their basic level I believe they are rooted in one conviction or the other. I believe that either position has validity. The illustration that I commonly use with the people I talk to is of a puzzle where we don’t have all of the pieces so each person may look at the puzzle and see two different images being represented. One person sees a horse, another person sees a donkey. We don’t enough pieces of the Covid puzzle to know beyond a shadow of a doubt one way or the other, so we make decisions based on what we believe we see (personal conviction)
Another illustration of this, is the ‘duck rabbit illusion’:
“Kaninchen und Ente" ("Rabbit and Duck") from the 23 October 1892 issue of Fliegende Blätter
What image do you see first? A duck or a rabbit? If you see a duck, look long enough until you see the rabbit, if you see a rabbit, look long enough till you see the duck. One person looks at COVID one way, another person sees it a different way.
My biggest concerns over the issue of vaccinations and the church are based fundamentally on two things:
- that the issue of covid as a whole has been elevated to a ‘top-tier’ issue, and,
- that there is a lack of grace and understanding of how another person in the body of Christ may come to a different conclusion about the issue when all of the puzzle pieces are not available (neither group is all-knowing).
Now that we have a clearer picture of what the issue is we can turn to a biblical response.
A Biblical Response
The Word of God is living and active, and it is useful for teaching, reproof, correcting, and training in righteousness. Another ‘top-tier’ issue is that the bible is the inspired, infallible Word of God. Where else then as followers of Christ the Living Word, can we turn?
The issue of hostility and division in the church is hardly a new issue. In fact, hostility is an issue that had to be addressed multiple times in the infancy of the church. What were the issues then that caused hostility and threatened to divide the people of God? It wasn’t a respiratory virus; it was on the basis of something far deeper than that. The issue was around ethnicity.
The Purpose of Division
God in his grace redeemed an entire nation of people, the people of Israel, to be his possession and to be a light to the nations of the world; to demonstrate and declare the good news of fellowship with God. God gave this people the Law in order that they would carry out this purpose as a light to the world that they would be set apart (holy) for this purpose. As God was doing this, he knew full well that the people would be tempted to deny him and to live their lives in the same way that the world did. In chasing after false gods and denying the one who saved them out of slavery.
The call to holiness would be continually challenged by the practices of the nations that surrounded God’s people and adherence to the law was what set the people of God apart from the practices of those nations (holiness). So there existed a dividing wall designed by God to protect the witness of His works and His word in the world. This division was not strictly on ethnic lines as there were people from other nations who would become God-fearers in the nation of Israel and Israelites who would wander away and serve false gods; however, by and large, the division was largely ethnic, the promise was for the children of Abraham (Genesis 12:3). The world was divided into two camps, Jewish and non-Jewish (also called Gentile).
Would this set up remain this way forever? Apparently not, according to the promises that God makes through the prophets of the Old Testament. God says of his servant that He will send in the future that,
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6).
Just as the people of Israel received salvation out of slavery in Egypt, so there was another greater salvation that was to come through the Servant of God. And it wouldn’t be a salvation along ethnic lines (even though the savior would be from Israel), but a salvation that reaches to the end of the earth, that is available to all who believe whether they are biological sons and daughters of Abraham or not; they will be spiritual children of Abraham. Who is the servant who would bring this about? It is the Messiah (The Anointed One), Jesus of Nazareth.
Killing Hostility: Unity and Peace in Christ
How did Jesus of Nazareth procure this salvation that would reach to the ends of the earth? It was through his death on the cross, his burial in the garden tomb and his resurrection to eternal life whereby he purchased our salvation from the powers of sin and death that we might walk in newness of life. Newness of life includes the breaking down of the dividing wall that once separated along ethnic lines (Jew and non-Jew). Which brings us to the main passage I wanted to focus on in Ephesians chapter two. Speaking of Jesus Paul says:
For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. (Ephesians 2:14-16)
Whereas before there was two, Jew and non-Jew, now in Christ, there is one. That dividing wall of hostility that was built has been broken down in Jesus’ body on the cross where Jesus fulfilled the requirements of the law that divided. What Paul is saying is that reconciliation, unity and peace under God is no longer on the basis of the law, but on the basis of Jesus and what he accomplished on the cross. Paul goes on to say that Jesus…
… came and preached peace to you who were far off [non-Jewish] and peace to those who were near [Jewish]. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. (Ephesians 2:17-21)
Jesus is the key to all of it. It is through Jesus that we have access in one Spirit to the Father. Because of what Jesus has accomplished, we longer look at each other on the basis of ethnicity or social status (1 Corinthians 12:13) but on the basis of citizenship in God’s kingdom which is held together by Him, a Holy Temple in the Lord.
Now, some of you might be wondering to yourself, ‘what in the world does this have to do with COVID and vaccines?’ Well, the argument is from the greater reality to the lesser. If unity in Christ, the breaking down of the walls of hostility is true for those whose nationality is traditionally hostile, then how much more ought our unity in Christ to stand firm in the midst of a global pandemic, the categories of which fall not into the basket of unchangeable nationality or ethnicity, but into the basket of personal conviction where not every piece is present. Personal conviction is important, but not at the expense of potentially trampling the grace of God that was purchased on the cross and neglecting the testimony of that grace amongst one another in peace and unity.
Where the Real Sin Lies
The presence of sin is still a reality we struggle with as followers of Christ, though we know sin and death are ultimately defeated by Christ. The conversation of sin throughout the pandemic has been around whether the vaccinated are sinning or whether the unvaccinated are sinning. My response is: neither. It’s not on the basis of the choice to get vaccinated or not. The sin element actually comes into play in our potentially hostile and ungracious responses to one another (even when we’re ‘in our camp’ of those who believe the same way that we do). In effect, our sin throughout the pandemic has been in rebuilding a dividing wall of hostility that fractures the Body of Christ instead of looking to Christ who is our peace.
A.W. Tozer once wrote an analogy that I often come back to: it is that a thousand pianos tuned to one fork will be more in tune with each other than if they tried to tune themselves off of the piano next to them. He used this imagery to communicate the fact that a thousand followers of Christ who are tuned by the Holy Spirit will be more in tune with one another than if we tried to manufacture uniformity with one another. Unity walks hand-in-hand with diversity under the umbrella of the essentials of the faith, uniformity throws diversity off a cliff.
Does this mean that we ought all to agree on the issue of COVID and vaccines? No. Rather, we are to recognize that our response to it is not a top-tier issue in the Body of Christ and that we are all going on the interpretation of the pieces of the puzzle that we see. We must then be gracious with one another. This is another issue that the church encountered in her infancy:
Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. (Romans 14:13-15).
Ultimately, we recognize that the future of the church, the hope of the followers of Christ does not rest in our ability to manufacture some kind of uniformity, but the future of the church rests (as it always has) on the power and presence of Christ:
…on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:18)
There is a rather troubling amount of division arising in the churches over the issue of coronavirus and vaccinations. Although division is sometimes necessary to protect the witness of the church, this is only when it comes to top-tier Gospel issues which I do not believe COVID is. Some may view it has a second-tier, some a third or lower tier; in either case, resist the temptation to treat it as a top tier issue, either as vaccinated or unvaccinated (as both sides are prone to elevate it). Neither side has the full picture and needs to exercise humility towards each other.
Jesus has broken down the dividing wall of hostility that existed between us, let us not rebuild in it’s place a dividing wall of any kind. There is no issue that surpasses the peace that Christ purchased with His blood on the cross. People are going to disagree with each other on this issue for years to come, lets make it our ambition that when we are looking back, we will see the church as a bright spot in a dark time. Not where everyone agreed necessarily, but where everyone had first things first and where people were charitable towards one another on lower-tier issues, not hostile. And all this that the glory of God might be displayed to a world that desperately needs it.
 Tozer, A.W. The Pursuit of God. Camp Hill, PA: Wing Spread Publishers, 1982 (p. 90)