The issue of mandatory vaccination—especially in relation to COVID-19—is causing significant division within the broader community and specifically the church. Already the Australian government has made it compulsory for people entering public buildings to register with a QR (‘Quick Response’) Code. And it seems highly likely that the next step will be for this to be integrated into a ‘vaccination passport’.
This potential practice raises a plethora of problems. In particular, as the following video by Ray Galea helpfully argues, how do we maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace?
While my wife and I have been vaccinated against COVID-19—and I’m personally persuaded of the reasons for doing, such as those outlined here by Dr. Scott Rae—many of our family and friends are not. And they make a number significant arguments for why they are either hesitant to take the vaccine or are ultimately going to abstain.
What’s more, their reasons are not conspiratorial or irrational, but as the following articles by Rebecca Weisser, the podcast by Bret Weinstein, or especially this piece by Dr. Robert Clancy, Emeritus Professor of Pathology at the University of Newcastle Medical School, demonstrate that their arguments are a product of thoughtful reflection and scientific evidence.
What follows are six reasons why those who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19 should not be excluded from attending church services, if that is what the Australian government mandates in the future:
First, the separation of church and state.
Few people realise that we are not the first generation which has had to wrestle with the question of ‘vaccine passports.’ All the way back in 1880, the Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper, argued that compulsory vaccination against diseases such as small pox ‘should be out of the question’. This is because, as Kuyper states:
Our physicians may be mistaken and government may never stamp a particular medical opinion as orthodox and therefore binding. Moreover, compulsion can never be justified until the illness manifests itself and may therefore never be prescribed as preventative. A third reason is that government should keep its hands off our bodies. Fourthly, government must respect conscientious objections. In the fifth place, it is one or the other: either it does not itself believe in vaccination, or if it does, it will do redundant work by proceeding to protect once more those already safeguarded against an evil that will no longer have a hold on them anyway.
Another idea Kuyper offers might at first seem somewhat obscure or hard to understand. His argument could be rephrased as follows: If the government doesn’t think that vaccines are effective then why make them mandatory? Alternatively, if they are effective then why should the vaccinated be afraid of the unvaccinated since they supposedly work in protecting one against the disease? Hence, it is wrong to legislate compulsory vaccination. As Kuyper concludes:
Vaccination certificates will therefore have to go… The form of tyranny hidden in these vaccination certificates is just as real a threat to the nation’s spiritual resources as a smallpox epidemic itself.
Second, the ethic of love.
Those in favour of mass vaccinations argue that the principle of ‘loving one’s neighbour’ (Mk. 12:30-31) means seeking the ‘common good’ by creating herd immunity. However, this scenario is by no means certain of being achieved. As one medical doctor has anonymously written:
Nobody knows how many people must be vaccinated in order to achieve ‘herd immunity. The WHO admits that the percentage threshold is unknown. Australian ‘experts’ admit that they do not know the answer.
Other key factors remains uncertain: the degree to which the vaccine reduces transmission of the virus, the duration of immunity provided by the vaccine, and the effectiveness of the vaccine against new variants of COVID-19. With so many unknowns, it is reasonable to conclude that ‘herd immunity’ simply may not be achievable, and its pursuit might be something of a fool’s errand.
Indeed, it seems likely that herd immunity by vaccination is a panacea that politicians and populaces grasp who are desperate for a return to ‘normal life’, but one which will forever remain out of reach. Level-headed commentators have acknowledged that one way or another, COVID-19 cannot be defeated and will be with us forever.
My own observation is that those who are the most nervous about meeting together again physically are those who have already been vaccinated. Which is weird because—as the above quote from Kuyper argues—aren’t they the least likely to be adversely affected by the disease? Up until now we have not excluded people from our fellowships who have not vaccinated themselves—or their children—from other diseases. Thus, it seems arbitrary to do so now.
There is though, more than one way to show love to one’s neighbour. For instance, David Schrock argues that resisting tyrants is also an act of love. Hence, a Christian’s best testimony to their neighbour may sometimes be found in courageously resisting the governing authorities and obeying God rather than man (Dan. 3; Acts 4:18-19; 5:41-42). For more on this particular line of approach see, the ‘call to arms’ in Francis Schaeffer’s, A Christian Manifesto (Crossway, 2005) as well as Tom Ascol and Jared Longshore’s, Strong and Courageous: Following Jesus Amid the Rise of America’s New Religion (Founders Press, 2020).
Even more seriously, to say that only vaccinated people are doing what is ‘loving’ implies that the unvaccinated people are hating others. Not only is this highly offensive, but speaking Biblically, this is to accuse them of sinning, and possibly even being a false believer (i.e. 1 John 3:11-15). As Christians, we all have a responsibility to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Eph. 4:3) As such, it is crucial that we recognise the wider body of believers, and do not reject anyone because they have a different view to ourselves (1 Cor. 11:29).
Third, freedom of conscience.
Following on from the previous point, the ethical responsibility to love one’s neighbour, actually cuts both ways, i.e. what does it mean for vaccinated people to love their unvaccinated neighbour? In particular, is it loving to enforce your own personal convictions onto someone else?
This is where I believe the heart of the debate actually lies. The choice to be vaccinated should be a matter of individual freedom—informed by one’s own conscience—which means that we should ultimately not pass judgment upon one another (Romans 14). As Abraham Kuyper once again argues:
Ten times better is a state in which a few eccentrics can make themselves a laughingstock for a time by abusing freedom of conscience, then a state in which these eccentricities are prevented from by violating conscience itself.
Hence our supreme maxim, sacred and incontestable, reads as follows: as soon as a subject appeals to his conscience, government shall step back out of respect for what is holy.
That it will never coerce. It will not impose the oath, not compulsory military service, nor compulsory school attendance, nor compulsory vaccination, nor anything of the kind. (emphasis added)
Unfortunately, those who have a conscientious objection to the COVID-19 vaccine have been accused by Philip Jensen as operating out of a ‘fierce’, or even ‘crass’, individualism. That they are only concerned with their own personal freedoms and not the greater good. But this is not only ungracious, but simply untrue. Speaking personally, the reason why my wife and I have been vaccinated is because we want to have the freedom to travel interstate due to the high likelihood of the government introducing vaccine passports. Truth be told, if it wasn’t for this threat on limiting on our individual freedoms, we may have decided against being vaccinated.
Fourth, the reason for medical caution.
The Scriptures consistently exhort us to test the spirits (1 John 4:1) and to not simply believe everything we hear, even if they come from reputable authorities (Acts 17:11). And so, while we should pray for, and submit to, the governing authorities (1 Tim. 2:1-5; 1 Pet. 2:13-17), they are not infallible and sometimes get things—such as with the morning sickness drug, thalidomide—disastrously wrong.
Significantly, all of the available government-issued vaccines — including Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, or Astrazeneca — have been emergency-use authorised (provisionally-approved in Australian language). This means that they have not passed regular pharmaceutical protocols, and therefore have not been subject to the same risk assessment. What’s more, according to the ABC, the European Union’s four largest nations—Germany, Italy, France and Spain—all suspended use of the AstraZeneca vaccine when it emerged that people were suffering from blood clots.
Further, other vaccine brands have also been shown to have caused similar blood clotting risks, as well as other serious side effects, such as heart inflammation. Particularly troubling is the fact that many of these serious side effects are skewed towards younger age groups, even including teenagers.
As I said previously, I am not an anti-vaxer, either in regards to COVID-19 or any other disease, with all of my six children having been fully immunised. But I can completely understand why people might be hesitant. I myself was scheduled to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine but only a few days before was informed by the government that it was unsafe for people under 60 to do so. Now, just a few weeks later, they are exhorting the entire population to take it.
Fifth, the danger of self-righteous acts of piety.
One of the most unhelpful aspects within this whole debate has been the displays of virtue-signalling from many Christian leaders, hectoring their vaccine hesitant fellow-believers. Under the guise of ‘showing moral leadership’, numerous pastors have posted on social media themselves having been vaccinated.
Very few seem to be aware of Jesus’ warning against such actions (re Matthew 6:1-4) as well as the division which this causes within the body of Christ. It is worth remembering that it was the Pharisees who were condemned for turning the teachings of men into the commands of God (Matt. 15:1-9).
What’s more, why did so few Christian pastors make a similar type of pronouncement regarding the Victorian Bill relating to ‘gay conversion therapy’, the South Australian Bill on euthanasia, the Queensland and NSW Bills legislating abortion, or even the national non-binding voluntary postal survey on same-sex marriage? Their voices of moral leadership on these ‘non-conscience’ issues of Biblical morality have been noticeably muted.
The challenge is to be courageous and uncompromising on God’s word, while also being inclusive and tolerant to those with a differing conscience. In short, we should seek to boldly speak the truth in love, even if it means that we’re going to be hated (John 15:18-20).
Sixth, is the question as to whether our congregations are characterised by faith or fear?
While no one today has argued for a kind of fatalistic form of hyper-Calvinism—such as in the time of Theodore Beza—it is crucial that we exhort our churches to the sure and certain hope held out in the Gospel. As the writer of Hebrews states:
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14-15)
A Straw in the Wind
The issue of mandatory vaccination should be a litmus test as to how we should relate to one another in Christ. In particular, leadership boards everywhere should be discussing now what their policy on the issue is going to be, before it becomes a problem for them pastorally. For example, the Presbytery of Sydney Inner West overwhelmingly resolved at its meeting on the 3rd August, 2021 the following position:
Recommend that no congregation of the Presbytery of Sydney Inner West forbid an unvaccinated person from attending corporate worship.
This may well be a proverbial straw in the wind as to how others should respond. To show the same love for their ‘weaker’ brother or sister as they would have them extend to themselves. Surely, this is the essence of what true tolerance is about. To not exclude anyone due to their conscience, but to accept one another just as God the Father has accepted everyone who trusts in His Son.
But there is another aspect that we need to remember as well. And that is, churches are an essential service for the community. Not simply because of the emotional support they provide, but because we believe in the power of prayer to alleviate our suffering. As Abraham Kuyper, wisely advised:
…when God’s judgments break out the government ought to share in the spirit awe that stirs the souls before the majesty of God. Rather than prohibiting prayer services it should itself proclaim a day of prayer. In this way, its solemn decisions and actions will underscore the impression that as a government it is powerless to ward off the plague that is visiting the nation and that it knows no better for deliverance than to humble itself before Almighty God.
 Significantly, Professor Clancy is a practising clinical immunologist with interests in autoimmune disease, immunisation and mucosal inflammatory disease. He was Foundation Professor of Pathology at the University of Newcastle, where he established the Newcastle Mucosal Immunology Group, identifying mechanisms of airways protection and the pathogenesis of mucosal disease, and discovered new methods of disease control. If someone as qualified as Professor Clancy is expressing reservation—and he is by no means alone! —then surely this should give us all pause for thought.
 Significantly, small pox was a lot deadlier than COVID-19. During the 18th century alone, the disease killed an estimated 400,000 Europeans each year, including five reigning monarchs, and was responsible for a third of all blindness. Between 20 and 60% of all those infected—and over 80% of infected children—died from the disease.