No doubt many denominations and congregations are now contemplating how they will respond to the New Zealand government’s proposed new vaccine pass laws, likely to come into effect in the next week or two. Under such laws, either people will be required to show their papers (confirming they have been vaccinated) or congregations will be severely restricted in how many people can gather for worship, even in places where there is no Covid. There is no time limit on these restrictions, and nor are there any exit criteria. This all comes on top of long-running gathering restrictions, severe on large churches, over recent months, again in places where there has been no Covid.
Of the Christian denominations I’ve only so far seen a statement from the New Zealand Catholic bishops. It seemed to be a thoughtful piece, if emphasising “safety” perhaps more than seems entirely consonant with the gospel (and prompting thoughts of “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”, where the children ask if Aslan is safe, and are told ‘no, of course he isn’t safe, but he is good”).
I was at a church yesterday where the sermon was replaced by a talk from the pastor outlining his thoughts, apparently shared by the parish council, on how the congregation should respond to the new laws.
I’m not going to name the congregation or the pastor but since it was an attempt to bring Scripture to bear in thinking about the issue, I thought it would make a useful presentation to reflect on and respond to. I didn’t have a pen on me so didn’t take full notes, but did jot down his outline as soon as I got home.
The talk drew on three strands of Scripture
- Jesus and the lepers,
- The mind and example of Christ, and
- Paul on the weak and the strong
The lepers are an obvious starting point (I dealt with them briefly in my own previous post). The pastor noted that Jesus reached out to lepers, and touched them to bring healing. But, he went on, Jesus didn’t tell the lepers to ignore the strictures of the rules on distancing (things like calling out “unclean, unclean” as they approached). Many of these things aren’t black and white.
It was a fair point – and interesting in the light of the sacrificial service many Christians have subsequently offered to lepers (one might think, perhaps most famously, of Father Damien of Molokai) – and yet, arguably, not directly relevant to the issue at hand. (Moreover, a couple of the commentaries on my shelves suggest that in 1st century Palestine it is possible that lepers were able to attend synagogue, although behind a screen to maintain physical distance.)
Thus, no one is proposing those with Covid should be encouraging to come to church, pass the peace, take Communion etc. It is an infectious disease, with very severe consequences for some of those who catch it. The issue with the pass laws is not whether those who are sick should come to church – not only generally should anyone with an infectious disease not do so, but in the specific case of Covid if you know you have it you are already required by law to isolate. Instead, the presenting issue is around vaccination and government confirmation of vaccination. We know that vaccination does not prevent a person being infected with, or infectious with, Covid, even if the probabilities (reduced risk of infection, some reduction in risk of transmission) work in the desired direction.
The second set of Scriptures the pastor referred to related to how Jesus lived on earth. As he noted, the question “would Jesus have got vaccinated?” is silly at one level (vaccines didn’t exist), although I was disconcerted to hear a docetic tendency is his suggestion that “perhaps Jesus didn’t need to”, as if Jesus’ full humanity did not include proneness to infection and disease. The main specific example the pastor cited was the baptism of Jesus by John. John’s baptism was one of repentance, and orthodox Christianity is clear that Jesus had no need of repentance – he was without sin. And yet he asked to be baptised by John. But, again, I wasn’t sure of the relevance to the issue at hand. Jesus’ baptism seems to have been an act of submission to, and participation in, the plan of the Father, signified in the descent of the Spirit (in the form of a dove) and the voice from heaven “this is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased”. I’m not going to disagree that sometimes we do things we don’t strictly have to do, for others. But the baptism of Jesus seems a rather weak reed to rest anything much on in a Covid context.
The third heading – the weak and the strong – seemed, at first glance more promising. The reference here was to Romans 14 which begins “Accept him whose faith is weak without passing judgment on disputable matters”, in this specific case the eating of meat. “Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food”, he goes on. He could have added I Corinthians 8 into the mix. They are strong and important words, and yet – as the pastor himself said – it really wasn’t clear in this Covid pass laws context who are the “strong” and who the “weak”. Are “the weak” in this case those who might be fearful of infection (to a reasonable extent, or not), or those fearful – or with strong conscientious reasons – of getting vaccinated? He didn’t know (and, in this specific context I’m not sure I do either, even though I’d like as many as possible to be vaccinated).
In the end, this pastor’s choice seemed to come down to two points. The first was that there were (or might be) particularly vulnerable people in the congregation. The second was that some members of the congregation were involved in ministry in some local council flats, where the density was relatively high and more vulnerable people lived. It would, he said, be highly undesirable if the congregation were to be a vector of transmission of Covid into that setting.
And thus he announced that the intention was that the church’s services would, for as long as the law lasted, be open only to those who would show proof of vaccination, attempting to sugar-coat this with “well, we all know each other, so it would only be necessary once”, adding that it would be just like going to the movies or a restaurant, and stressing that vaccination was just something people “could choose” (I presume this was intended to distinguish it from discrimination on grounds of, say, race or sex).
I don’t want to suggest that this pastor’s approach was at all cavalier. One could hear the unease in his voice, at being put in a situation where choices of this sort (whichever way they went) had to be made. No doubt it will be an unease felt by many pastors and elders etc up and down the country. They are not easy choices, and perhaps particularly not for large churches.
But it is striking how, in the end, so many are just willing to go along, and conform with the preferences. priorities, and worldviews of an (atheistic and materialist) government which – understandably given their worldview – sees gathering to worship the living God, he before whom all will one day stand for judgement, is just akin to heading out for a movie or a bite to eat. Or how willing people are to treat matters of deeply-held belief (well-justified or not) as simply a matter of choice, which people can readily change (and thus, some may at some point in the future suggest, our choice to follow Christ himself?).
As I’ve noted in previous posts, it has been so ever since Covid restrictions began in March 2020. Churches went along quietly with the cancellation of the celebration of the Easter – pre-eminent feast of the Christian year – and with the prohibitions on gathering for worship (even distanced, even outdoors). Pastors went along with being barred from visiting the sick, ministering to the dying (and desperate) – and it isn’t only pastors who do such ministries – as if the highest priority is this life and the things of this life. Pastors went along with caps on congregational size, even in very large buildings (where physical distancing could readily have been achieved), and so on. And now they (in many cases, perhaps even most but time will tell) propose to fall into line when governments purport to tell them who they may, or may not, let join in worship – perhaps indefinitely. And, will act as enforcers of that government law, checking papers and turning anyone who can’t or won’t (and they are different groups) show them.
I was interested to listen to yesterday’s talk, partly because it is good to hear the case for a side one is sceptical of, and because the pastor concerned can be a thoughtful insightful preacher. And yet this time I was left with a sense that in the end he was going to go along because (a) it was easier, and (b) the council housing involvement. The latter argument made little sense to me. It might be a reasonable argument for those of the congregation actively engaged in that ministry – as might requiring an antigen test before setting out on each occasion, if the statist government had not largely outlawed such tests (unlike the situation in most other advanced countries). But what relevance does it have to gatherings of the whole congregation for worship? But it is easier, no doubt. If they chose not to go along they’d either have to restrict – at times severely – the size of congregations, or choose to simply defy the law and risk prosecution. It is a clever law, because it tempts churches to compromise their gospel of open welcome, with the promise that “go along, and we’ll let the compliant meet, with no problems”. Crafty temptations often take that sort of form.
There are worse things than simply, thoughtfully and prayerfully choosing to disobey an unjust and illegitimate law. A law that tells churches they cannot meet as they would prefer – indoor or outdoor – welcoming all who would come, indefinitely is such a law. And not, as it happens, even very well aligned with the physical risks the government claims it is worried about
The optimistic take is, I suppose, that it may all be over in a few months’ time. Perhaps, and we must hope so. But even if so, controls once used are not forgotten by those who once used them. And this is, after all, the government that is currently legislating to outlaw aspects of prayer and orthodox Christian practice and ministry, so the idea of slippery slopes is not wholly fanciful. And nor is a sense that too many churches and church leaders are all-too-ready to take the easier path, with little sense of where – if anywhere – they might take a stand.
A government that will outlaw open and joyful large scale Christmas Eve midnight services – a festal celebration of the incarnation of Christ – might be a place to start.
(My earlier post on such issues is here.)