In various ways the state governments around Australia will continue to impose limitations on church meetings as part of their response to the pandemic. Exactly what they will be, how they will work and how long they will last will have to be seen. We will have to respond to them as they are announced and as they change. These will probably include some form of requirement to show vaccination status to come to church.
I want to suggest some of the biblical truths which should inform our response to whatever restrictions are imposed, especially any form of ‘vaccination passport’.
Government and public health
In the last 20 months we have faced in a new way the question of the role of government. This is an area to which Presbyterians have given a lot of thought over the centuries and the Westminster Confession gives a good summary. It also says important things to limit of the powers of government in matters of faith and life which the Australian Declaratory Statement reinforces, but for the sake of space I won’t go over those.
Civil government has a role to direct the safety of the whole community — what WCF calls the “public good”. The Larger Catechism, written by the Assembly, lists the responsibilities of “superiors” to “inferiors” (Q 129), including those placed in authority in the church or the commonwealth. Rulers should love, pray for and bless those they lead, teach and discipline them, set them an example, protect them and provide “for them all things necessary for soul and body”. The basis is that rulers are like parents (e.g. Isa 49:2), with similar responsibilities. Parents and rulers are to protect and provide for those God has placed in their care (Job 29:7–25; Isa 1:10, 17; 1 Tim 5:8).
Providing for public health during contagious outbreaks was part of caring for the public good. The English Plague Act of 1604 established a system of ‘viewers’ in each parish who recorded sicknesses and deaths and reported these to the justices of the peace. Local authorities were to ensure that the clothing and bedding of victims was to be destroyed, and funerals were to be held at dusk to reduce the number of mourners. There was an infamous regulation that plague victims were shut in their homes, with their families, for six weeks. The authorities were to supply them with food and were empowered to raise taxes to pay for this.
The authorities had the power to instruct churches not to meet. Richard Baxter, a contemporary of the Westminster Assembly wrote that “If the magistrate for a greater good, (as the common safety,) forbid church-assemblies in a time of pestilence, assault of enemies, or fire, or the like necessity, it is a duty to obey him.” (Christian Ecclesiastics, Question 109).
The civil authorities have a proper role to protect public health. Only they are in a position to co-ordinate the type of response required in a pandemic. This is even more the case in a modern, post-Christian and pluralist society. The complexities of a modern health care system require the state to take significant responsibility for providing and managing and protecting those resources.
Christians are to honour and obey the authorities appointed by God (Rom 13:1-5; Tit 3:1; 1Pe 2:13, 14). This is not simply pragmatic advice so that we should keep ourselves out of trouble. Paul says it is a “matter of conscience” (Rom 13:5).
The Larger Catechism even addresses the situation where governing authorities do not earn our respect. One of the duties of subjects to authorities is “bearing with their infirmities, and covering them in love” and continuing to honour them (Q127).
We don’t have to think that governments get everything right to accept that they are using the God-given authority in an appropriate area when it comes to public health. Governments face complex challenge to protect lives and the health system while ending lockdowns and restoring community life and the economic activity. We owe them support, prayer and co-operation.
What are the truths about church which should shape our response? It turns out that they are the same as those which should always direct church life, though now they have to be applied in new situations (as lots of churches have been doing in the last two years).
The church as a whole and each local congregation is united in Christ by the Spirit. It is one body and is called to live that way (Psa. 133:1; John 11:52; Rom. 12:4–5; 1 Cor. 10:17; 12:12–13, 27; 2 Cor. 13:14; Gal. 3:26–28; Eph. 2:17–19, 22; 4:16; Col. 1:2; 3:11; Heb. 6:4; 1 Pet. 2:10). Paul’s instruction is to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3). This means that churches will want to be able to gather in unity, and even more importantly we need to work hard to maintain relational unity.
The example of church life in Acts (Acts 1:14; 2:46; 4:24, 31; 6:5-6; 11:26; 12:12; 14:27; 15:6; 16:40; 20:7) and the assumption of the epistles (1 Cor. 5:4; 11:34; 14:26-40; Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16; 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27; 1 Tim. 4:13) is that churches meet. We are instructed to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together” (Heb. 10:24-25). The Greek word translated as “church” in English Bibles is ecclesia, a word for meeting or assembly (Acts 19:32, 39, 41; Heb 2:12). Over the last two years many churches around Australia and around the world have met online. That has been a welcome emergency provision. It enabled us to meet, but it is not same as meeting in person. The apostles express their desire to meet in person with the congregations and people to whom they write (Rom. 1:11-12; 15:22-23; 1 Cor. 4:19; 2 Tim. 1:4; 4:9, 21; Tit 3:21; 2 Jn 12; 3 Jn 13-14).
Church is more that meeting, it is also a community which exists because of that meeting. Not being able to meet, should not exclude someone from the community. Over the last few months many of us have found new ways to express Christian fellowship — walking together, phone calls, even old-fashioned letter writing. If some people cannot attend church meetings for a time, they are not excluded from fellowship, and we need to work extra hard to ensure that.
The WCF states that the Christian conscience is free “in anything contrary to God’s word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship”. That is, Christians obey God and not human authorities if forced to choose between the two (Acts 4:19; Acts 5:29). Further, we should not accept as a doctrine or a religious duty anything which is not required by God in his word.
This has an important implication for relationships between Christians. In Romans 14 Paul tells Christians to accept one another “without quarrelling over disputable matters”(Rom14:1). Believers may have different views about what they can eat or which days they keep, but we are not to judge each other for that, the Lord is the judge (Rom 14:2-13). On these kinds of questions, each person should come to his or her own conviction and follow that in thankful obedience to the Lord (Rom 14:5-6). Christian freedom, then, applies to two areas, which can overlap: where the Bible does not teach any particular behaviour and where Christians take different views about the implications of Scripture.
There is no biblical command to be vaccinated or to not be vaccinated. We can discuss which is wisest, and which serves our neighbours best, but it is not something about which we should condemn or reject one another. There are a small number of Christians who have objection to taking COVID vaccines because cells derived from an aborted were used in development and testing. For a discussion of those questions see here [https://gsandc.org.au/should-we-object-to-and-boycott-vaccines-created-using-tissue-from-aborted-fetuses/].
Do not show favouritism
Christians should treat one another fairly and equally, without favouritism (Dt 1:17; Lev 19:15; Pr 24:23; Jam 2:1, 9). Every person is made in God’s image, Christians stand as equals — brothers and sisters in Christ. The illustration is James warns of showing favour to the rich, rather than the poor (James 2:1-9). The same principle applies to any unfair discrimination. This doesn’t mean that we never recognise differences between people. For instance, justice requires generous mercy for the vulnerable and marginalised. Favouritism is when we assume that one person or one group deserve better treatment than another group, especially if that comes from their power or privilege. So in making decisions about church life, we should be wary of having a favoured or more privileged group.
Christians seek to use the rights and freedoms for the good of others, not for themselves. In Paul’s long discussion of Christian freedom he spells out the principle: “no one should seek their own good, but the good of others” (1 Cor 10:24). This follows Jesus own example of humbly serving us at his own cost (Phil 2:4-11).
Each of these principles is important in how we address to the issues of vaccination passports in the church. They do not give an automatic answer, and there are some difficult possible scenarios. Individual Christians and church leaders will need to prayerfully think through how to best apply them in each circumstance.
– John McClean