Vaccine Mandates and the Unity of the Church

(Apologies for the audio cutting off at the 43 minute mark. Please download the sermon manuscript if you want to read more.)

On the 21st of October 2021 Jacinda Ardern announced that NZ will be moving away from the Alert Level system to the Traffic Light system. Some of the stated goals by the government are to update the countries response in light of a majority vaccinated population, and to limit lockdown situations to relevant areas and not make them country wide. Our message today is not going to focus on the political, medical or economic logic behind these choices but to focus on how the governments coming imposition will impact our ability to meet as a church. As it stands the traffic light system has a double standard, one for the vaccinated and one for the unvaccinated. At green there are no number limits on those churches that will demand vaccination certificates for access; but churches that do not ask whether you are vaccinated or not will be limited to 100 people, or the maximum that your building can hold with a 1m distance in-between. At orange, there will be no limits on those who require vaccination certificates for entrance; but churches who do not ask for certification, they will only be allowed 50 people at 1m distance in-between. At red, the vaccinated can enjoy 100 people in church 1m apart, but the unvaccinated will be limited to 10. What this will mean for a church of our size is that we would with some careful planning be able to have our regular services during green, we would have to run two morning services in amber, and we would have to divide the church up into smaller groups to meet in each other’s homes in red. Larger churches will be very hard pressed under these restrictions.

At present I am involved in a court case seeking a judicial review against the governments restrictions of religious meetings in light the countries own laws related to religious freedoms through the new group Free to be Church. That court case is addressing the larger question of can the government dictate our ability and the nature of our meeting? That is a bigger question with important biblical reasons for why we should insist that the church must meet. Our basic functions as a church depend on our ability to meet, it is only in our assembling that we are the gathered people of God and can fulfil some of our most basic functions. We should be allowed to meet and fulfil these basic functions, while doing them responsibly in light of Covid. But that is not the question we want to address from the Bible today. The question we want to face is this one: Can we submit to the governments coming laws and only let vaccinated people into our church to hear the gospel and for worship? The answer must be, No! We cannot submit to this law, we will not close our doors to the unvaccinated. Does this mean that we will engage in civil disobedience? No, we are presently in a court case and will seek to exhaust our legal options. Christians are people who accept the gift of government as from God’s hand; we are to be the best of citizens who emulate good citizenship, not only in deed but in attitude, giving honour to whom honour is due. We even have instruction on how to submit to bad governments. Civil disobedience is a last resort when to submit to the government is to sin against God. For now we are viewing the traffic light system as a temporary providential hindrance, civil disobedience will only become an option when it is clear that there is no indication of change on the part of the government, and we must disobey in order to be faithful to God.

So what are the biblical principles that we look to at a time like this? We want to know what God has given as an authority to determine what should bind the consciences of Christians and be the laws by which they meet. So we will be examining what the Bible teaches about conscience and who is the Lord of the conscience and what we are obliged to obey when it comes to meeting as God’s people. Secondly, we want to discover if there are any principles for how we can be together even if we are divided over political or medical opinions. I think a very helpful portion of scripture is Romans 14:1-15:13.

The book of Romans divides into two parts, chapters 1-11 deals with the doctrine of our salvation and 12-16 deal with the life of the saved. Paul deals with a number of ethical matters in the second portion but none get as much attention as the divide between Jews and Gentiles over matters of conscience. Paul deals the issue of Christians welcoming one another for 35 verses from 14:1-15:13. Compare this with 7 verses on submitting to the government, 4 on living in light of the second coming, 5 verses on body life, etc. This issue gets so much air time because it is a particularly big problem and because it is so important. The issues in the Roman church were these. There were Jews in the congregation who still lived by certain OT laws, even though Christ had fulfilled these and the ceremonial laws were done away with. There were Jews who were following Daniel’s example in not eating and drinking anything that was tainted by, or even thought to be tainted by idolatry. The Jews practiced not eating meat as a principle, just in case tainted meat was eaten, they erred on the side of safety. These Paul calls weak in faith, 14:1. They are believers, they are living by their principles probably living lives of greater discipline than others in the church, but they believe that some of God’s laws still apply and they think they are doing God’s will. Then there were the Gentiles who had been saved out of idolatry, they were not burdened with the baggage of OT law and were set free from such scruples. These Paul calls the strong, 15:1. Add to this the common racial tension of the day where Jews were generally seen by the Gentiles as backwater hicks who were a thorn in the side of civil peace and unity; and the Gentiles were viewed by the Jews as unclean and second class citizens because they were not of Abraham’s blood. Add to this the difficulty they would have in any public meal where they would have to share food with the uncircumcised and watch the Gentiles eat foods they taught their kids not to eat. In this situation we learn from 14:3, that certain sinful attitudes are prevailing, ‘Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.’ The strong despise the weak, and the weak are judging the strong. V1 reveals that this is leading to quarrelling, ‘As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions.’ Now there is something we must guard against here. We must not read ourselves into the text and decide who the strong and weak are in our case and exchange our issues for Paul’s. This would be unfair to the text as Paul may have responded very differently faced with our situation. It is not my goal to pass judgement on the matters we are wrestling with but to highlight the principles we need to apply when we can’t agree.

Like Paul we face a situation full of conflict and division. On the one side we have those who are vaccinated, they are ok with the science behind the vaccine, they may think it is a good idea to get it to protect themselves and others, they may even be going along with the government’s present publicity campaign that getting it is the loving thing to do, and go on social media to let their disappointment be made known accusing the other side of lovelessness. On the other side is the unvaccinated, they are concerned about the governments breach of privacy laws and imposition of health choices on a free people; they are convinced that vaccines are not safe, either Pfizer or all of them; they think that people who get vaccinated are irresponsible, gullible, and enabling a tyrannical government. Can you feel the tension? What is the loving thing to do, do we stand up to a government which is taking away peoples freedom for the sake of a vulnerable minority, as they are influenced by critical theory; or do we lovingly serve the weak and vulnerable by giving up our rights? Who should get the say in how the church and her ability to meet is used; who gets to co-opt the church for their particular agenda? No one, the church is God’s church and He will tell us how to meet. The question we should be asking is: how does the sufficient word of God equip us to meet this cultural moment? The Bible’s teaching around how the conscience should be informed, and how the gospel creates the church will show us the clear path to walk on.