With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic sad and unfortunate divisions have crept in amongst Christians.
There have been debates over adherence to Government regulations, the cessation of church gatherings and the acceptance of vaccinations.
For those who feel confused and who are questioning, what advice can be offered?
Are the principles of the New Testament of assistance in guiding our thinking?
While the specifics around our particular situation did not arise in the New Testament, we do know that the early Christians did suffer from division over ethical and practical concerns.
Romans 14 is a case in point. Believers in Rome differed with regard to diet and others observed certain days which some did not. Paul encouraged a spirit of harmony where these divisions were tolerated and respected. The command not to destroy the work of God over meat is voiced with particular strength.
1st Corinthians 8 is perhaps even more helpful to us in our 21st Century circumstances. The question which the Corinthians debated regarded the purchase of meat that had been offered or dedicated to the pagan gods. We can certainly understand the arguments that by eating such meat Christians were condoning pagan rituals. One can imagine the accusations of heresy and apostasy being hurled at those who purchased such meat with the bitterness and division that all this was bringing to the congregation.
Paul, however, walked a careful line in advising the church on this issue. He saw nothing wrong in eating meat offered to idols but he also realised that those who ate this meat needed to respect the conscience of those who refrained. Therefore he taught the people to love each other, recognise the opposite viewpoint and respect the body of Christ.
“But meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse. But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak.” (1st Corinthians 8:8-9)
Where the essentials of the Gospel were concerned Paul was ruthless in rooting out apostates and urging separation. But on these lesser issues which did not involve Gospel compromise Paul was much more conciliatory.
Examining these ancient divisions and reflecting upon the Holy Ghost inspired words of the apostle teach us the true character and nature of the Church. God does not create a body where we think alike on every issue. The Church of Christ is not a cult but a living body with many parts; where diversity lives in unity. We are permitted to have differences on issues, some of which are sensitive and emotive, interpreting the scriptures according to our consciences while embracing our unity in Christ.
Let us now apply the principles gleaned from Paul’s inspired counsel to our current circumstances in this COVID-19 world.
1: Adherence to Government Regulations
Through the course of this pandemic some in the evangelical world have questioned and objected to the church obeying laws which interfered with their ministry of the church. I qualify the previous sentence though with the observation that while public assemblies were closed church continued and ministry carried on although not in the regular fashion.
This is neither a Romans 14 or a 1st Corinthians 8 issue because according to Romans 13 the powers that be are ordained of God and when the State uses its powers for the good of the public we are duty bound before God to obey. In the course of this pandemic all of society has had its rights curtailed…this is not a persecution issue for the Church….this is a health crisis in which we must play our part for the good of our fellow man. This has meant accepting the closure of our public meeting houses for periods, restricting our numbers, enforcing social distancing and wearing face coverings. We do not have liberty to break the law when the principles of Scripture are not violated.
2: The Voluntary Cessation of Church Gatherings
On occasions where the law has not enforced compulsory closure of places of worship congregations and denominations have voluntarily closed their doors after considering medical advice.
This is most definitely an issue akin to the eating of meats offered to idols in 1st Corinthians 8. A small assembly may feel sufficiently safe in convening public worship whereas a large gathering may not. An independent congregation may be able to safely meet given their local circumstances whereas a denomination responsible for many thousands of worshippers may not.
Following Paul’s counsel we ought to accept with grace the decisions made for the good of our people in these difficult times.
3: Acceptance of Vaccination
The issue of vaccinations has become a hot topic over these past months owing to the development of cell lines from material which was taken from an “aborted” baby fifty years ago (the exact details regarding this child and how death occurred whether by natural miscarriage or by what we generally call abortion has not been fully established).
I understand totally that this is an emotive and distressing issue believing as we do that abortion is one of the greatest crimes ever perpetrated by humanity against humanity. The issue for me in this article within the context of the vaccination programme is not whether abortion is right or wrong…everyone who has a godly and biblical sense of morality repudiates abortion as a wicked practice.
The ethical question with regard to the vaccination programme is:
When accepting a vaccination, which has used cell lines developed from an aborted baby fifty years ago, are we complicit in the sin of abortion and are therefore guilty of this sin by association?
This is not a situation which is unique to some of the COVID-19 vaccines currently circulating, it also applies to a number of other life saving vaccines which have been in wide circulation for many years and which have helped to greatly reduce illnesses, particularly among children. I must also add that a number of medications have also been developed using similar research making this a much wider subject area than vaccinations.
Great care, therefore, needs to be employed with our language when thinking through the ethical implications of this subject.
The point needs to be made at the outset:
A There does not appear to be evidence that a child was murdered deliberately for medical research purposes,
B Nor is there evidence that research was carried out directly in an aborted baby over this past year to produce any of the COVID-19 vaccines.
C Also, there is no evidence that genetic material from an aborted baby is contained within any of these vaccines.
On this basis there is not a proven direct link between abortion and the vaccination programme.
The connection is indirect as a consequence of research carried out fifty years ago. That of course does not validate the methodology, of using the bodies of aborted babies for research, but it is an important observation nonetheless.
Would we prefer that scientists did not carry out this research, if indeed an aborted child was experimented on….Absolutely. There were other ways of developing cell lines and it is a travesty science has seized upon the opportunity that abortion has given in this regard.
If someone, however, can prove a direct link with abortion in the vaccination programme, someone who is medically qualified and who examines this subject in a forensic fashion…I would be most interested because that would alter the opinion I am advancing in this article.
But our issue is this – does indirect linkage make us personally complicit in the crime of abortion?
This is where Paul’s teaching in 1st Corinthians 8 is so helpful. Some were arguing that by buying and eating meat offered to idols there was an association with idolatry but Paul argued that this was not the case. Instead he advocated that the personal conscience of the various views be tolerated and respected with love.
The argument of making one guilty by indirect association is fraught with difficulties.
A pertinent comparison is slavery. Many families in Britain became incredibly wealthy on the back of the slave trade. Should their families today be penalised because of the crimes of their ancestors? Does a nation continue to be guilty because centuries ago crimes were perpetrated in their name against humanity? Should nations who suffered as a consequence of the slave trade be compensated today by those nations which engaged in this depraved activity? Are we still guilty of slavery by association?
Does this not show how complex the argument of guilt by indirect association is?
Another comparison is the observation of Christmas. Some argue that because many Christmas traditions have their roots in paganism we should dissociate. Others argue that we should use it as an opportunity to be thankful for the coming of our Lord. On this issue, it must be said we have learned to apply 1st Corinthians 8.
All of this argues for great care before jumping to conclusions on the vaccination programme. The pro-life position is erected on the biblical premise that all human life is sacred and must be treasured. These vaccinations, according to the testing carried out and early results from the programme, are life saving. They have the potential to not only save the life of the person who is vaccinated but all of those whom that individual may possibly infect, if not vaccinated. This is no trivial matter in the light of the death toll as a consequence of COVID-19, now exceeding 100,000 in the UK alone.
Am I therefore to recommend that Christians should not accept vaccination on the basis of an indirect link to an abortion which took place fifty years when the Scriptures in principle do not warn against such indirect associations?
According to the medical data we are presented with, these vaccinations are life saving preventative treatments for what can be a very serious illness.
To therefore use this indirect linkage as an argument for not taking treatment, the effect of which could lead to death, also has implications where the sixth commandment is concerned as well as the command to care for the temple of the Holy Ghost.
However, I do agree that this is a matter for personal conscience. I myself will accept the vaccine when offered but I totally respect the opinions of those who prefer not to accept. But it is quite wrong for me as a Christian minister to teach that all must either refuse or take the vaccination on a point of biblical principle. The biblical principle at stake here is that of Christian Liberty, outlined by Paul when writing to the Romans.
We must be mindful of the Holy Ghost inspired wisdom when faced with such complex and divisive matters:
“Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.” (Romans 14:5)
In summary – while we must respect each other’s views with regard to COVID-19 and the various responses, we are not at liberty to articulate these opinions in a way that causes hurt and division. The principles of the Gospel are not at stake, nor is our stance on the evil of abortion affected. But we must exercise care lest the sacred unity of the body of Christ is disrupted in a way that will hinder the work of God long after this health crisis has passed:
“With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:2-3)