The Needle Dividing the Body of Christ

No Laughing Matter

When I was about 13 or 14, I used to secretly watch Southpark without my mum knowing. One of the many memorable moments I remember involved the actor Russell Crowe. Crowe had been in the news for losing his temper and punching people, so the Southpark creators gave him (i.e. a cartoon animation) a special cameo. Trying to redeem himself for his violent ways, he decides that fighting cancer would be a good cause. Upon discovering he could not fight cancer itself, he decided the next best thing would be to fight someone with cancer – at which point he begins to punch a bedridden hospital patient. Even at that age I knew that was wrong to laugh at but couldn’t help myself. Southpark is good at doing that.

Less amusing is the way people are fighting Covid-19 by fighting each other.

I have heard of spouses having to get vaccinated in secret from their partner, of grandparents’ fury at their adult children, and families that can’t even speak about Covid or Pfizer.

There has been a surprising inability – by both sides – to see things from the others’ point of view and empathise with each others’ reasons. People seem very quick to assume the stupidity of everybody on the other side.

It is worse still when it is happening among Christ’s people.

Followers of Jesus – even more than NZ as a whole – have reason to keep peace among each other. Our common identity in Christ is more important than our identity as vaxxed or un-vaxxed. Jesus gives us compelling instructions to love one another, and exemplifies care for those who are different.

Certainly, these things should give reason for patience, sympathy, and understanding across differences within the body of Christ.

Put yourself in the other side’s shoes and try to see past your own point of view (even if it’s right).

You who are non-vaxxers – don’t you realize that others see you as a serious health risk? That they might have specific loved ones in mind when they are angry at you – a child, a sick friend, or a fatigued hospital worker? It may be true that most Covid cases are rather mild, but some people get absolutely hammered – and in a widespread outbreak, even a small percentage would amount to more ICU patients than our hospitals can handle. That is what you must sympathise with.

You who are pro-vaxxers – don’t you realise the non-vaxxed feel coerced to accept an invasive, irreversible medical procedure that they don’t think they even need? Bullying people into vaccination may save lives, but it will do so at the cost of our own decency. “Victory at any cost” should make us pause and reconsider coercement and slander. At least. It may be true that some Covid cases get absolutely hammered, but most cases are not as bad, and these people would rather take their chances with the virus and let those who are concerned take their chances with the vaccine.

[It is probably here that I should disclose my own private vaccination status. I am double vaxxed. And I think it is ideal that others should be too. Initially I was hesitant, but two things nudged me over the line. One was looking into how this vaccine works – it looks pretty straightforward. Furthermore, I know that experts working for different pharmaceutical companies will happily point out problems with competing vaccines (capitalism must be good for at least that). The other was my wife’s pregnancy – if I can help prevent her having a potentially-serious respiratory illness when she is heavily pregnant, I will.]

Christ’s body, the church, must not be divided over this. It is bad enough to see a polarised nation, but we who follow Jesus have reason not to imitate this polarisation over vaccinations.  

To prevent the body of Christ from being divided by the vaccine, here are two things we must not do:

1. ‘Crazies’ vs. ‘Fanatics’: We must not belittle or despise each other.

In Romans 14 the apostle Paul raised the issue of whether Christians should or should not eat meat that came from an animal that had been sacrificed to an idol. This was a real problem for them in that culture-.

Some Christians regarded this as inconsequential and happily ate this meat, only to be condemned by others who saw this as tantamount to joining in the idolatrous worship.

These other Christians regarded the meat as spiritually tainted and refused to touch it. These abstainers were likely regarded as too uptight by the first group who felt they were not bound by such matters.

Over this issue, Christians were at risk of becoming deadlocked in disagreement.

Paul warns these Christians not to judge each other for the stance they had taken on the issue. His concern was not so much which group was right (though he does address the issues) as how they treated one another in their disagreement.

When it comes to the vaccination, we need to take a similar position. As Paul instructed the Roman Christians, we likewise must take care not to judge each other for not taking the right position.

The range of rationales that I have heard for why people refuse the vaccine range from bizarre to surprisingly well considered. But none (to my knowledge) are doing this to be deliberately difficult. We would probably see a wide variety of reasons why people do take the vaccine – no doubt some people take it for poorly thought-out reasons, but escape the scrutiny because they are doing the socially acceptable thing.

Here, I am reminded of a situation faced by early Christians. At times, all members of the Roman Empire were required to perform an act of worship before an idol/statue of the emperor. Doing so earned a certificate which allowed them to continue life unbothered by law enforcers. Some Christians did the deed out of coercion, and later renounced their action and sought to rejoin their church. Some did it out of indifference. Others acquired forged certificates. Many refused and had to live in hiding. Some suffered terribly at the hands of the law. Unsurprisingly, Christians did take different positions on the necessity or acceptability of these actions. Nonetheless, they were expected to love one another and forgive those who had lapsed. Many did not – they failed to do what Christ asked of them in that difficult time. We must do better.

So – take care not to condemn or ridicule each other. If we do this we fail to love one another, as Christ commanded us to do (John 13:34-35).

Jesus’ band of twelve apostles included an ardent, violent nationalist (Simon the Zealot) as well as an enemy-collaborator (Levi the tax collector for the occupying Roman regime). These two must have found it challenging to obey Jesus’ words in John 13:34, being on opposite sides of a violent divide. Christian fellowship depends on being Christ’s faithful people, not on taking the right position on one or another social issue.

2. Regathering our Churches: We must leave none behind.

It looks like New Zealand will be soon using a Vaccine-Passport system for the foreseeable future. This will mean that churches must either require every attendee to prove they have been fully vaccinated, or face severe restrictions on numbers in their gatherings.

Some churches will see no problem in this since they will have a fully vaccinated congregation. Other churches will find this more difficult – what should they do if, say, a quarter of the church was unvaccinated? Or what if it is just one member? What should they do then? Simply relegating the unvaccinated to watching the gathering from afar through a livestream video is unacceptable. Demanding members undergo a medical procedure to join fellowship slides disgracefully close to what Paul forbade the Galatian churches.

In 1 Corinthians 11:17ff Paul rebukes some for celebrating the Lord’s Supper without waiting for everyone to arrive. It may have been the case the wealthy Corinthian Christians could easily get to church on time, while poorer members who were slaves could not. Rather than wait for the less able members of the body of Christ, they went ahead at their own convenience. They ate and drank to excess, while the stragglers were humiliated when they arrived late to find nothing for them (the Lord’s Supper in the NT era was more of a meal than what is commonly done in churches today, and probably provided more by the wealthier members).

Paul blasts them for this: this is the Lord’s Supper in nothing but name – when they disregard the ‘disposable’ members of the body of Christ, they insult Christ.

We face a similar situation. If we go ahead to finally enjoy gathering as church once again (at our government-permitted convenience), but do so while excluding the members we have been instructed to, we can hardly call such a gathering ‘church’. Whatever their rationale, the non-vaxxed are no more disposable to the body of Christ than Christian slaves were in the early church.

On this point, another consideration must be raised: Even if your church is 100% vaccinated, is the community that your church is called to serve fully vaccinated? How will you include someone who wants to visit your church to find out about God or to find help, if they can’t produce a vaccine passport? Public health measures are important, but they are not the only factor that must be considered.

I am reminded here of what I learned about Christianity in Malaysia a few years ago. In Malaysia, about 60% of the population are ethnically Malay. The rest are Chinese, Indian, etc. Malays are not allowed to go to church, since they are by definition Muslims. The constitution of Malaysia forbids Malays from attending church and from Christian literature being published in the Malay language. This is enforced by law. Because of this, any Malay who attends a church gathering is regarded coldly – they are a legal liability to the church, and so on the whole this group of people are kept from the gospel. Certainly, this is a difficult position, but from what I have been told it is a challenge most non-Malay Malaysian Christians shy from working on.

We in New Zealand will not face the same level of legal restrictions as Malaysian Christians, but the Vaccine-Passport system is nonetheless a challenge that we will need to work through.

The Months Ahead

Events of the next few months will challenge churches and Christians. Some will feel it more acutely than others, depending on how many of their members are disinclined to be vaccinated regardless of the pressure to do so. Some may not feel it at all. Smaller churches will face less difficulty but face the same conflict of principle.

The task in front of us is to continue to love one another across differences that have some very real consequences and derive from some very different points of view.

Part of doing this will mean working out in practical terms how we maintain fellowship with those of our churches (and communities) whom the government will restrict us from doing so. Fellowship must also satisfy reasonable health measures.

However these practicalities are worked out, it is important that we find a way not to exclude “least honourable” members of Christ’s body but instead to treat them with “special honour” (1 Cor 12:23). That way we will remain churches not only in name but also in character.

Christians (and others) who ultimately refuse to get vaccinated and acquire a vaccine-passport face being made maligned and marginalised members of New Zealand for the foreseeable future. Whatever their rationale, they will not be doing it lightly, and it is not the role of vaccinated Christians to make life harder for them. Enough angry New Zealanders are doing that already.

The role of vaccinated Christians in this divide is to care for the unvaccinated as they face the difficulties from refusing the jab, and love them as sisters and brothers.

The role of unvaccinated Christians in this divide is to consider carefully how they can ensure those who are worried that they don’t pose a health risk, and to patiently forgive those who hate and abuse them.

However the next few months pans out, Christians and churches must show New Zealand that we are Jesus’ disciples (John 13:35). We do this by steadfastly loving those who are regarded as “enemies of public health”, and, if we ourselves are one of these so-called “enemies”, by loving those who hate us. The next few months may be difficult, but this is what the Lord requires of us in such times.