Following are notes from a talk shared with a pastors and leaders forum in Ottawa, Ontario on September 29, 2021.
I will share political and legal comments, but first indulge me some thoughts on lessons learned from life and Scripture.
During my undergraduate studies at Queen’s University, I was part of a crowd that referred to the University of Ottawa as the U of Zero and Carleton University as Cartoon U. In retrospect, I was a jerk. I am fortunate today to have friends who are graduates of both universities.
When I became a Christian at twenty-one, it was in The Salvation Army. Early on, even as a pastor, I was ready to debate anyone about Salvation Army distinctives: why baptism and communion were not essential sacraments; why women belong in leadership; or, why it was essential to accept free will in order to have a relationship with Jesus Christ. In retrospect, I had capacity, and tendency at times, to be a Christian jerk; particularly on those occasions when it was more important to me to be right than to enjoy relationship.
The apostle Paul reminds, God is working all things together to conform me, as you, to the image of Christ (Romans 8:28, 29). However, Christ’s image in me might look different than his image in you, if only because we are different parts of His one body (Romans 12:3-7; 1 Corinthians 12:12-27).
Over the last eighteen months, Christian leaders have faced a storm of criticism for differing positions taken about following or not following government health guidelines, as well as about getting or not getting the jab or hosting a vaccine clinic. Leaders have been deluged with displeasure from Christians they were discipling, some of whom have changed congregations or opted to leave the church altogether as the result covid-related decisions. Among the sternest critics have been other Christian leaders who rejected the conclusions reached by fellow workers for the Gospel through sincere effort to follow Christ in genuine commitment to feed and lead His sheep.
The untamed tongues of both men and women (James 3:1-12) have been harsh when prayer and study to understand mysteries and apply knowledge have led to differing opinions on what to render to Caesar (Mark 12:17). Something has been missing.
Without love, Paul writes, we have and are nothing. Love is patient. Love is not arrogant. Love does not insist on its own way (1 Corinthians 13:1-8).
Love is the crux of the three great commandments Jesus emphasized for His followers, and the compass for navigating the current storm.
First, Love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength (Matthew 22:37; Mark 12:30).
Second, Love our neighbours as ourselves (Matthew 22:39; Mark 12:31).
Third, love one another that the world might know we are His disciples (John 13:34-35).
We sometimes forget that at the last supper Jesus was speaking to His followers about our relationship with other of His followers.
Today, some Christians are more willing to publicly debate matters not essential to following Christ than to accept there are and will be differences of opinion in the many parts we are in the one Body of Christ.
Ed Stetzer of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College calls this time “the age of outrage.”
Have we, who are in Christ, perhaps acclimated to the faceless and distant angry exchanges found on social media? Have we linked our emotions to public demonstrations over matters large and small, each and all of which are claimed by supporters to be of greatest importance? Have we, who are the Church, become distracted by issues that are not the main thing?
Five times in his last supper comments Jesus told us, his disciples, to love one another (John 13:34, 34, 35; 15:12, 17). It is by that love the world will know we are His disciples. He closed the conversation with a prayer for our unity (John 17:11, 20-22).
Jesus knew how very different we would be: in skin colour, in cultural heritage, in language, and in our understanding of Scripture. He prayed for our unity, not our uniformity. Later, He encouragingly gave John the revelation that one day we will be united; every tribe and tongue and nation together will worship Him (Revelation 7:9).
My pastor, Jason Boucher, recently posed the self-reflective question, “What have I made bigger in my life than Jesus?”
When I heard it, I realized I have faced this question in a variety of situations. I am prone to lose focus when I think political leaders or court justices have broken from constitutional principles or the rule of law in favour of power or progressive ideology. Jesus is bigger than that!
In recent months, Canadian Christians have quarrelled very publicly about whether to follow government health regulations. Although Christ submitted even unto death and Peter, Paul and others accepted the penalty of imprisonment for sharing the Gospel, we have disagreed over:
- How much we should render unto Caesar in our democracy (Matthew 22:21; Mark 12:17).
- The limits of our submission to government authority that temporarily infringes our constitutional rights (Romans 13:1-7; Titus 3:1-2; 1 Peter 2:13-16).
- How much honour we are to give to elected politicians and appointed medical officers, even though we know that God knows who they are and their responsibilities (1 Peter 2:17).
Inexplicably, not just the decisions but the character of Christian leaders has been questioned. Declaring that a pastor is a coward for adhering to government regulations is not debating, it’s bullying. Calling a pastor who does not adhere to government regulations self-promoting and delinquent is demeaning. We are equipped for better comment and conversation.
The world to which we are called to witness Christ’s love is watching, listening, and evaluating our love for one another. Will they see evidence that we are Christ’s disciples?
There are Bible passages about: our relationship with government; how we treat one another within the church; and, the honour owed to Christian leaders. There are no verses about vaccines or vaccine passports.
Lets turn for a moment to those topics. First, vaccine passports.
Pastors and other religious leaders appealed to provincial governments to treat places of worship as essential services under health guidelines. The governments of British Columbia, Manitoba, Quebec, and Ontario have decided to do just that in regard to vaccine passport requirements. In Ontario, for example, this means churches are being treated on par with grocery stores. We may now admit anyone into our buildings, provided health protocols are followed. (Ottawa Public Health has issued detailed local guidance.)
Except in New Brunswick, there is no requirement that places of worship check for vaccine passports. Elsewhere, churches have the option of requesting or not proof of vaccination.
Some pastors have asked their provincial government to make the determination on passports or no passports required. Perhaps they’ve experienced enough division over covid-19 decisions. However, the current position, based on earlier petitioning, is unlikely to change unless church gatherings are found to be not adhering to health protocols or to otherwise be unsafe venues.
In making a local decision about whether to require proof of vaccination, congregational and denominational leaders will want to check with their insurer or broker to verify conditions of coverage.
Also important to consider is the approach toward those who have had covid-19 and self-produced the necessary anti-bodies. Some doctors are advising those who have had covid not to get vaccinated as some scientists say no jab may be required. But governments have decided no passport without the double dose.
How will you ask personal health screening questions, either online for pre-registrants or at the door?
The understanding some leaders have about love for one another, love for neighbour, and appreciation for possible insurance limitations, may determine the best policy for their congregation or denomination is to verify passports to reduce risk. Others will proclaim reliance on God as healer, and that ‘whosoever will’ must be able to attend, opening the doors to all. There is not one uniquely biblical solution.
Another issue Christian leaders are encountering is requests for vaccine exemption letters based on religious beliefs.
The Supreme Court of Canada has determined that: 1) freedom of religion is guaranteed based on personal sincerely held religious beliefs, even if a priest, theologian, or co-religionist disagrees with the individual’s understanding; and 2) personal practices connected with sincerely held beliefs are an expression of the individual’s religious freedom. (See 2004’s Syndicat Northcrest v. Amselem and 2006’s Multani v. Commission scolaire Marguerite-Bourgeoys).
Unless as a leader you teach a religious basis for vaccine hesitancy, if you opt to provide a letter you might best note only that the congregant has expressed a personal religious belief objecting to receiving the vaccine. If the person shares their reason with you (e.g. objection to vaccine development using human cell strains from decades old foetal tissue obtained from aborted foetuses; a directional dream or vision of a religious nature, etc.) you may wish to include it. A letter is not a guarantee. Assertions made may be rejected by an employer and could be binding as evidence if legal action results.
Jesus did not say that following Him would be easy, and it is certainly not free from controversy in this age of outrage and insistence on getting one’s own way. Jesus did command us to love God, love one another, as witness to our neighbours, and to love our neighbours.
Such love will guide us through this storm, navigating toward the main thing, living for Jesus. Love never fails.