Imagine living in Australia in 1942: Darwin is being bombed by the Japanese; three midget submarines have just come into Sydney Harbour, sunk a ferry and killed 21 people.
Imagine that young men from your local church are hearing the call to defend the country and going off to war. Some will return home with limbs missing. Others will never return at all. Other Christians in your congregation refuse to go—even fight conscription—for the sake of conscience. They believe that the Bible forbids them to take up arms.
One important duty of pastors is to help brothers and sisters think through the principles of living in a church where the saints hold different views.
Can you imagine the tension and division in such a church? What would be your pastor’s role? I suggest one important duty would be to help brothers and sisters think through the principles of living in a church where the saints hold different views.
I think it’s the same for us when it comes to living in a church where members hold different views on vaccination.
Please note: The purpose of this paper is not to give direction on vaccination. I am not a doctor; nor am I a scientist, I am a pastor called to disciple the church of God. To that end, let me share how we can live in a church with different views on vaccination to God’s glory.
Firstly, I recognise this is a very delicate and emotional issue. Many of us are feeling the impact of an extended lockdown. It’s messing with our heads and hearts. That pressure is felt by some more than others—especially those who are isolated, or have little support, or who suffer from depression or anxiety.
Importantly, some have lost loved ones to COVID-19. One person at a church in South Africa has lost six friends; another in India has lost ten people. COVID has profoundly and personally impacted some people at church.
Still, others have their own quota of health issues and are feeling physically vulnerable and acutely compromised concerned for either themselves or members of their family.
All of which means we must speak on this issue with extra care and sensitivity.
Last Monday we had a discussion in my own staff team, and it became evident that we did not all share the same views on vaccination. It was a good and gracious discussion with a number checking on each other to see if they spoke with grace. This made me realise that we need to think hard about how we can live together despite our different views.
So here are a few principles to keep in mind—and I’m sure you can think of others.
1. Remember the two great commandments are to love God and love others.
Whatever your view on vaccines, adopt an ‘other-person-centred approach’.
Whatever you decide about vaccination, seek a conclusion which loves, not just yourself, but your family and the wider community. Remember it’s not about you! We are to have the mind of Christ who considered others better than himself (Phil 2:5-11).
We should be particularly aware of this with regard to those who are vulnerable. The God of the Bible has his constant eye on the orphan, the poor and widow. Paul warned us that without love we are nothing (1Cor13:1-2). Whatever your view on vaccines, adopt an ‘other-person-centred approach’ with a special eye to the powerless.
2. Turn your panic into prayer.
God is no less on his throne now than before or after COVID 19. Jesus told his disciples, that if we have a Father in heaven who knows our needs before we ask, and who truly cares for us, then we need to trust him and not be like the pagans who panic about the basic needs of life.
The repeated rebuke by Jesus to his disciples was ‘why are you so afraid?’
Before a watching world—including the part that we meet through social media—we have a great opportunity to stand apart, refusing to live in fear because our God will never leave us or forsake us. While we can’t stop feeling anxious we are called to turn it into prayer (Phil 4:6). We can demonstrate our trust in God’s promise that his peace will guard our troubled hearts.
I assure you it will be more helpful for your troubled soul than constant exposure to a never-ending stream of COVID information.
3. Be informed and be thankful.
We are made in God’s image to govern and guard creation. That means we should be thankful to God for the work of scientists when they attempt to defeat diseases that attack God’s creatures.
Notice how much time you spend reading (and becoming an ‘expert’) on this issue compared to how much time you spend on God’s word.
Nevertheless, it is also true that we must use our God-given minds to wisely assess the research available. We should be discerning about whom we trust, but also open and non-defensive when it comes to other people’s views.
To help yourself walk this line, notice how much time you spend reading (and becoming an ‘expert’) on this issue compared to how much time you spend on God’s word and fellowshipping online with the saints. Be honest with yourself: ‘are you more excited about sharing your view on vaccines than about sharing Christ?’
4. Be humble and acknowledge that no one is infallible.
Even the best of research is not perfect. If you are suspicious about the ‘other’ position then learn to be a little suspicious about your own as well.
5. Remember that we can’t completely avoid risk.
We live after the fall and outside the garden of Eden. We must never think that we can totally avoid risk in a broken world. We are all forced to assess and calculate different risks.
However, there is no risk in following Christ who will raise our body from the dead—just as surely as God raised him to be our Lord on the third day!
6. Don’t pressure other people toward your view.
Have the conversation if the other person gives you permission, but not if they don’t. This includes members of your family.
It’s exactly the same with evangelism, which has to do with eternal issues: ask permission to speak and share information; don’t dump it, and definitely don’t demand that people accept your view. If someone does send you material on vaccination, you are free to read it or ignore it, but you are not free to be rude about it. If we are called to speak with ‘gentleness and respect’ to false teachers (2 Tim 2:25), how much more, should we be gracious with those who have different views on vaccination, whether in-person or on social media.
Remember too, to be careful and not to be cynical or sarcastic, about people who hold different views from your own. You don’t have to apologise for what you believe, but never forget you share the same creator as the fellow image-bearers with whom you are disagreeing.
Of course the principle applies much more in the church with brothers and sisters who share the same Father in heaven and the same Lord and Saviour.
You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. (Romans 14:10)
Let us, therefore, make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. (Romans 14:19)
7. Have a biblical view of government.
We each have different default attitudes to government. Some of us are more suspicious of authorities—and there are good reasons for that suspicion. Let us not forget that “the rulers of this age crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor 2:8). On three occasions Roman magistrates had Paul beaten with rods (2 Cor 11:25; Acts 16:22). Our federal government has previously led us into unjust wars and approved pro-abortion legislation in the states. It’s not Parliament we trust in, but God.
Others have a more positive view of government—acutely aware that the kind of freedom and order and wealth we have in Australia has never been matched at any other time in the history of the world.
No doubt our views here are shaped by many factors: our experiences in this country (and maybe others); our upbringing, education, thinking and reading.
We are to regularly pray, openly respect and ‘willingly’ submit to them—even if we think they are inconsistent, ineffective or just plain wrong.
Nevertheless, let us be very clear about what the Bible requires with regard to the government. We are explicitly called to honour (1Peter 2:17), pray for (1 Timothy 2:1-2), and submit to, all governing authorities (Romans 13:2-3). And it’s not because they are necessarily doing a great job, but because “The authorities that exist have been established by God.” (Rom 13:1)
If the apostle Paul can say that about a vicious and brutal Roman Emperor, we have no excuse to reject God’s teaching. Unless the government causes us to explicitly violate our loyalty to Christ then we are to regularly pray, openly respect and ‘willingly’ submit to them—even if we think they are inconsistent, ineffective or just plain wrong in their response to COVID-19.
Suffice to say that any attempt to engage or promote civil disobedience because we are inconvenienced grieves the Spirit of God. This doesn’t mean we can’t protest and communicate our convictions—as long as it is done lawfully, and respectfully.
8. Strive to maintain the unity of the church
Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace… (Ephesians 4:3)
Finally, take heed of the warning to not divide the church of Christ. (1 Corinthians 3:16-17)
God’s church should be a profound mystery to the world: a place where men, women, young and old; where people of many different cultures, classes and political persuasions come together in love—united by Christ’s precious blood and sealed by his Holy Spirit. Let’s not divide it over vaccines.