I rarely get sick. And thankfully, if I were to catch a common cold, it’s unlikely to become a divisive political matter. No one would contest the reality of the symptoms. Nor would anyone argue vehemently with me over the efficacy of Kleenex, rest, and over the counter cold medications. There would be no one telling me I shouldn’t cover my mouth when I cough. Instead, most people would accept and support my efforts to get better and to keep others from catching the cold from me.
Then there’s COVID. And all of a sudden, taking precautionary measures leads to polarized arguments on social media, debates about government power and overreach, protests against masks, and, worst of all, division in churches. In churches.
Now, let me be clear. When I say division, I do not mean differences of opinion on all things COVID. Nor do I mean people who opt not to attend church because of their particular convictions or concerns. Instead, I mean the breakdown of communication and relationships. I mean one group of people in a church being unhappy, angry with, or resentful of another group of people in a church. I mean the kinds of situations that tie pastors in knots, because there is no helpful solution that smoothes over everyone’s concerns and makes all parties happy. Worse, I mean people who confess Christ as Saviour and Lord but whose handling of COVID restrictions puts them in the position of acting unbiblically towards their brothers and sisters in Christ.
Let me explain.
In 1 Corinthians 8 Paul addresses an issue we will never specifically face in our day: whether or not believers should eat food that has been offered to idols in pagan temples. Many Christians in Corinth were converts from paganism. Some of them couldn’t in good conscience eat such meat because of its association with pagan worship. The passage is worth quoting at length here:
About eating food sacrificed to idols, then, we know that “an idol is nothing in the world,” and that “there is no God but one.” For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth—as there are many “gods” and many “lords”—yet for us there is one God, the Father. All things are from him, and we exist for him. And there is one Lord, Jesus Christ. All things are through him, and we exist through him.
However, not everyone has this knowledge. Some have been so used to idolatry up until now that when they eat food sacrificed to an idol, their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not bring us close to God. We are not worse off if we don’t eat, and we are not better if we do eat. But be careful that this right of yours in no way becomes a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone sees you, the one who has knowledge, dining in an idol’s temple, won’t his weak conscience be encouraged to eat food offered to idols? So the weak person, the brother or sister for whom Christ died, is ruined by your knowledge. Now when you sin like this against brothers and sisters and wound their weak conscience, you are sinning against Christ. Therefore, if food causes my brother or sister to fall, I will never again eat meat, so that I won’t cause my brother or sister to fall.1 Corinthians 8:4-13
Notice how Paul clearly says that Christians are free to eat such meat. It doesn’t matter one way or the other. There’s nothing special about this meat. And, besides, idols are simply idols. They are not divine beings of any sort. At the same time, though believers are free to consume this meat, Paul also tells them to be careful that this right of yours in no way becomes a stumbling block to the weak. Going further, he says that if food causes my brother or sister to fall, I will never again eat meat, so that I won’t cause my brother or sister to fall.
So Paul’s concern is that our actions as believers do not cause others to stumble in their faith. To this end, he says we ought to be willing to put our freedom aside in order to prevent others from stumbling. In other words, it is not Christlike to assert our rights when the well-being of the body of Christ is at stake. Indeed, following Jesus involves sacrifice, putting others’ needs ahead of our own, and loving our neighbour even when it costs us.
Elsewhere in 1 Corinthians, Paul explicitly talks about not making use of his rights as an apostle. Speaking of his rights as an apostle, he says of himself and his co-workers that we have not made use of this right; instead, we endure everything so that we will not hinder the gospel of Christ.
Once again, the emphasis here is on not asserting one’s rights. And this is for the sake of the gospel. Note again: asserting our rights as Christians can, at times, be a hindrance to the gospel and not an expression of it.
And with all due respect to believers who feel strongly about COVID restrictions, remember that it is not a gospel issue. What we believe or don’t believe about COVID isn’t a matter of Christian orthodoxy, theological correctness, or biblical faithfulness. It’s not a salvation issue. Even if someone truly thinks that these government-mandated guidelines are the beginning of a slippery slope to even more government overreach and abuse of power, being asked to socially distance and wear masks doesn’t even come close to being asked to deny your faith in Jesus. It simply doesn’t. It certainly doesn’t qualify as persecution. Asserting otherwise is an insult to the many around the world in other nations who suffer and die daily for confessing faith in Christ.
And when we talk about setting aside our rights for the sake of the gospel, I think we can unpack this in a few ways.
First, of all Christian unity and peace in the body of Christ is a gospel issue. The relationships between people in churches is a gospel issue. It actually matters whether or not we are willing to put others’ needs ahead of ours. It actually matters whether or not we prioritize our relationships with other believers over our convictions on secondary or even tertiary issues. It actually matters whether or not we find spiritually healthy ways to deal with tension and conflict in our churches. Consider more words from the apostle Paul:
Therefore I, the prisoner in the Lord, urge you to walk worthy of the calling you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope at your calling—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.Ephesians 4:1-6
Notice how Paul explicitly connects unity and peace in the body of Christ with the work of the Spirit, with our baptismal confession, and with very nature of our trinitarian God. The way in which we handle these sorts of matters relationally in the body of Christ matters because it is part of our witness to our larger communities. Our relationships with one another ought to reflect our deeper, primary convictions about the nature of God. We do this through humility, gentleness, patience, and love.
Frankly, how you get along with fellow believers and how you are growing into a spiritually mature and emotionally healthy follower of Jesus is significantly more important than your view of masks and social distancing.
Not only that, our unity as believers is so important and so intimately connected with the witness of the church in the world that Jesus–to whom we confess our allegiance–prayed for it.
I pray not only for these, but also for those who believe in me through their word. May they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us, so that the world may believe you sent me. I have given them the glory you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me, so that they may be made completely one, that the world may know you have sent me and have loved them as you have loved me.John 17:20-23
Why does Jesus pray for unity among his followers? He prays for this so that, as he says, the world may know you have sent me. Others coming to faith in Jesus, knowing he was sent into the world by God the Father, depends in some measure on the unity of the church. It’s a matter of Christian witness.
So, secondly, our witness is also a gospel issue. Our relationships in the church demonstrate what we believe about God and the good news of Jesus. When there is discord in the body of Christ over secondary issues, it’s a stain on the witness of the church to the wider world.
All of this is to say, if you are a follower of Jesus, are you thinking through the way in which you express and live out your convictions on secondary or tertiary issues? Are you thinking through how you are affecting your brothers and sisters in Christ as well as the witness of the church in your neighbourhood? What does your manner of living out these particular convictions say about God, the good news, and the church?
For example, if you are on Facebook or other social media platforms, do you think (and even pray?) before you type and post? I really think that the kind of disembodied communication that takes place on social media, absent of personal presence and actual relational accountability, gives many permission to say things they wouldn’t dare say in person. Not only that, I think many use technology as a way of actually avoiding real human interaction that they would find uncomfortable or awkward or that would potentially challenge their assumptions. Rather than another, healthy way of engaging others and ideas, instead it’s a way of sidestepping the more difficult, but essential work of relationships. Often there is no conversation per se. Instead, people talk past one another without ever stopping long enough to listen.
It goes without saying that those who confess to believe in and follow the Lord Jesus should model another way. We should be voices of humility, peace, and calm. We need to be aware of the degree to which we can mistakenly allow the medium of social media dictate how we express our beliefs and interact with others. We ought to demonstrate what it means to have unity even when we disagree on secondary or tertiary matters. We should show through our relationships that the gospel of Jesus is our priority.
After all this, I should also make clear that I am not asking anyone to violate their conscience. If a Christian believer has a particular conviction with respect to COVID restrictions, and it’s a matter of conscience, my suggestion is that they follow their conscience. Hopefully, what I’ve said above makes clear that it’s the manner of following one’s convictions on this matter that is crucial. How are you relating to others who view matters differently? Are you seeking to encourage fellow Christians, even if you disagree?
As it happens, how we do this is also a part of our witness and therefore a gospel issue. And whatever else we make of COVID and all the restrictions that our governing authorities are currently requiring us to follow, those of us who know and trust the Lord Jesus need to prioritize the witness of the gospel, of which our relationships with one another in the church are a fundamental part.