A snapshot

My recommendation at the beginning of the traffic light system, is to remain with online services and small group gatherings until the end of January. I would like to avoid vaccine certificates, whilst working within government guidelines, even though this is very restrictive, and means we can’t have large gatherings. As a church of vaccinated (90% of adults) and unvaccinated we need to take the time to understand the full implications of the traffic light system, but more importantly protect our community from the likely increase in cases in Pukekohe over the next few weeks as the restrictions come down. Some details are not yet clear, so this interim decision would provide us with time for prayer and discernment, care and understanding as we collectively consider our decisions and the implications. This is a slower, but honouring pathway forward.

This paper explains details of the background thinking that leads me to this place.    

I wrote this paper, initially for myself.  Aware that my reaction to individual vaccination situations seemed to vary, I wanted to see if my responses were consistent, logical and aligned with my faith. I’m now sharing this with our church for your awareness. This is a personal reflection and not intended to be a formal position for our church.

I genuinely respect the decision of many who have not been vaccinated, although I have been fully vaccinated.  I support the program to increase vaccinations, but disagree with vaccine mandates in many workplaces, and the loss of jobs that have occurred. I see the need to raise concerns about political decisions, yet believe we need to work within government guidelines. I want to uphold unity within our church community, and I also recognise the health challenges which prevent participation.

There are several basic premise in this discussion:

  1. Christian beliefs shape our actions.
  2. This is a health situation that needs to be managed (in society and also within churches).
  3. All people should be respected (regardless of their decisions of conscience or vaccination status).
  4. Personal decisions have implications on the church community (and this also needs to be managed in light of #2).
  5. Identity in the church is based on faith in Jesus Christ, and not on any other external factor (and there should be no form of division that excludes).

Unity and inclusion

From a pastoral, theological and practical perspective, the very idea of compulsory vaccine certificates for church attendance seems contradictory to our fundamental understanding of church.  The identity of the church is defined by faith in Jesus, not any external circumstance.  There may be legitimate ways to facilitate this without damaging our understanding of church.  But at first glance, a separated church is spiritually distanced from a wholesome vision of church identity (1 Cor 12:12-14; Eph 2:11-22).  Nobody should be excluded from the body of Christ on the basis of a decision relating to their physical body.  I understand and respect leaders of other churches who have already made it clear that they will not lead a divided church, and who will not gather until all can gather.

However, this is not a simple matter of accommodating everyones perspective.  We are walking through a global health crisis that has claimed 5 million lives, which New Zealand has been sheltered from until now.  Therefore our church response needs to include an adequate consideration of the health issues involved. Pastors and church members are called to care for the whole congregation.  This will include: the immune compromised individual who medically cannot attend settings with unvaccinated people;  the teacher who may lose the job they felt called to;  the elderly who are vulnerable;  the parent, who is aware that all-inclusive settings are more risky for their children; pastors and leaders who carry the legal responsibility to ensure maximum safety, and also the spiritual responsibility to all within the church. It is natural that most individuals will view church decisions through their own circumstances. We need care-filled wisdom to give attention to all of the issues involved.

Christian faith and medical science

My Christian view on healthcare is that God designed and created the human body.  Those who have spent years studying and researching the human body and medicine will have trustworthy insight and understanding about our health.  The God of healing is interested in the health and care of our physical body.  God works through both supernatural healing and also works through practical care and medical intervention.  Generally I see medical advances as consistent with Christian faith, helpful to humanity and God-given.  However, some medical activity raises moral and ethical concerns, which also includes the financial greed related to medicine as an industry.  These issues need to be carefully evaluated in light of both Scripture and science-based expertise from qualified Christians in those settings.

One helpful example of examining these issues, is the extended conversation between a panel of NZ Christian experts, including a scientist, doctors and academics. Facilitated by Ven Dr Lyndon Drake, Archdeacon of Taamaki Makarau who also holds a PhD in Science. Lyndon is a leader I trust and know personally through his recent NZ Baptist leadership roles. (86mins) https://www.facebook.com/lyndondrake/videos/523072332106417/.

A health situation

Because COVID-19 is primarily a health situation, we need to listen to medical and scientific research.  As a pastor, I’m not qualified to offer this and cannot think of many pastors who are.  Whilst their voice may be persuasive and important from a religious standpoint, I don’t believe that pastors have credibility to advise on medical issues unless they are also qualified in this area.  On the basis of most current health advice, I see the vaccination program as the best option available in NZ right now to manage a very real COVID-19 crisis.  Therefore, I believe the vaccination is the best choice for the majority of people.  I urge individuals to follow the recommendations of health professionals.

I recognise that it is challenging to know which information to trust when there are conflicting views or potential ethical concerns.  One helpful approach is:  Firstly, to avoid opinions that are not backed by peer-reviewed scientific research; Secondly, when moral or ethical concerns are raised, to listen to the wisdom of qualified Christian professionals (doctors, scientists, academics) as they seek to address those concerns. This approach helps us avoid overreacting to speculation, and allows us to filter information through the expertise of Christians with specialisation in these areas.  Personally, I lean towards NZ and Australian based Christian health expertise.  This has helped me work through the medical concerns that have been raised.

One example of Christian critique, is this presentation by Dr James Yun, an Australian doctor representing the Christian Medical and Dental Fellowship https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ocqg_WXNHgw

BioLogos is another helpful website which was set up a few years ago to provide believers with Biblical answers to medical questions. There are a number of links to short videos explaining the common questions: https://biologos.org/series/should-christians-take-the-vaccine.

For me it is important to continue hearing the perspectives of others. People regularly send me alternative content. I am no longer hearing anything new that I haven’t yet considered. But nor would I say that every issue has been fully reconciled. I would have preferred to wait longer for the vaccine, and I have concerns about those who have had reactions. But for me there was still enough evidence to demonstrate this was the best option, in spite of my unresolved concerns.

The rest of this article is based on the conclusion that COVID-19 is a very real health crisis, and that the ministry of health is offering the best medical and safety recommendations to minimise the impact of the virus.  Some individuals may disagree with this data, choose to take a personal risk, or play down the health situation, but I am not qualified to do so.  Neither for myself, my family, or for the church community that I lead.

Respect for individual decisions

While I agree with the general recommendation for individuals to get vaccinated, I also understand and respect many individuals who for various reasons have chosen not to receive the vaccination.  Especially those with a medical condition where there is a known risk.  I agree that individuals should be free to choose or refuse any form of medical treatment.  In the same way that I would support someone with cancer, who chooses not to receive treatment.  Similarly, I share the Christian belief that our physical bodies need to be honoured as the temple of the Holy Spirit, and I respect those who carry a personal conviction that they should not take this vaccination.  In some ways this is similar to my support of those who have chosen to be vegan, abstain from alcohol, or cook their meat well done based on their interpretation of Scripture and personal conviction about what they ingest.  The apostle Paul addresses similar conscience issues in 1 Cor 8-10, and Romans 14 and calls the church to walk in unity despite their diverse decisions. Although we may arrive at varying conclusions, I pastorally support those who hold a conviction about their choices. The difference however, is that unlike decisions about food consumption, a personal vaccination decision affects other people.  

Individual versus collective decisions

From a health perspective, experts inform us that unvaccinated people carry a higher risk of contracting and spreading the virus.  The vaccine reduces the risk.  Although it does not eliminate the risk (vaccinated people can still contract and spread the virus), we are told that the rate of infection is significantly lower.  It is important for the unvaccinated to evaluate the impact of their decision on others in the group settings they want to be involved in.  As COVID-19 cases increase within a community, it is reasonable to expect regular assurance of health.  In some settings it may not be possible to uphold both personal choice and collective participation.  Keeping in mind the genuine health concerns of the pandemic, the choice to prioritise personal freedom may be inseparable from the choice to reduce collective freedom in some situations.

In light of this, Christians need to approach decisions with the community in mind, not just their own individual preference.  Jesus calls followers to surrender their rights (laying down our lives for each other); to seek first the kingdom (not the individual); to love one another, and care for the vulnerable.  With this in mind, many Christians have decided to be vaccinated based on their commitment to the call of Christ to care for the community, as a priority that overrides their individual choice.

Vaccine mandates

Personally, I disagree with some decisions our government has made, and I consider that workplace mandates have been over-reaching.  I care about teachers, health care workers and others who have lost their jobs, and I don’t believe they should be in this situation.  I agree that safety is imperative, and that workers in these settings should provide regular proof of health or of vaccination.  But I believe there are different options that could have been considered, such as rapid antigen testing and alternative vaccines (alongside Pfizer).   In light of these different options, it might have been possible that any worker/employee could provide proof that they are free of the virus, instead of losing their job without the Pfizer vaccine.  This may have been costly, but I think employees should have been offered this option, because there are options available globally. I am supportive of those who are actively lobbying these issues. In every setting of concern, rapid testing could provide better proof of health than a vaccination could.  On that basis, I think it is wrong that people have lost their jobs, or been excluded from participation without an alternative option for testing.

Personally, I have signed the recent Family First petition calling for rapid antigen testing as an alternative for unvaccinated kiwis. https://familyfirst.org.nz/dontdivideus/

Gareth Jones, Emeritus Professor of Anatomy at Otago University, offers insights into a Christian response to vaccine mandates in the workplace.
https://baptistmag.org.nz/an-individuals-christian-response-to-a-vaccine-mandate-in-the-workplace/

Social concerns

Vaccination mandates and lockdown have raised many other social and political concerns. Here are some examples:

  • Ethical concerns about Pfizer as an organisation, including corporate greed. In other circumstances we may choose to boycott an organisation, or refuse their products, but in this unique situation, it is practically illegal for some New Zealanders (eg teachers) to take this stance.
  • Economic concerns about the financial impact of lockdown, and the incurred debt that will be carried by the next generation.
  • Legal concerns about the far-reaching radical shift in employment relation decisions relating to vaccine mandates at present.
  • Global concerns about low-vaccination rates in countries that are more vulnerable, at the expense of other wealthy nations like New Zealand, who have easy access and high-vaccination rates.
  • Concerns about the disproportionate lack of focus on other issues that are statistically more costly and damaging to society, such as the health and societal damage relating to alcohol abuse.

It is important, but difficult to raise these concerns in the current climate.

Political views

Although I disagree with some government decisions, and I believe that individuals should be free to make their own choices, I do not support large-scale public protests that break the law during lockdown. This comes back to the understanding that there is a real health situation that needs to be managed and that we need to walk within the laws of the land.  

Similarly, I think we all need to recognise when our political opinions affect our perspective of this health situation. It is important to note that all major NZ political parties support vaccinations. As a Christian, I believe we are called to respect, pray for, and submit to our government (Rom 13:1-7). The exception would be if the government were silencing the gospel, or forcing me to do something that opposed God’s will.  From my perspective, this has not happened.  I am also deeply disturbed by the behaviour and language of Christians, using swearwords to name-call politicians, inciting violence against them, and ‘prophetically’ proclaiming their ruin.  I believe the heart of God would call us to pray for restoration rather than destruction of any individual.

End times

Some have expressed concern that the health measures that have been implemented might be sinister steps toward a level of control that will eventually be comparable to one of the most evil dictatorships in history.  Another Christian view is simply that the government is making short term decisions to manage a health crisis. On this basis, the health measures that have been implemented are interim short stages of response, rather than part of an extreme trajectory of evil. These phases are set to be reviewed at a certain point. And we are safeguarded by an election process.  This is how I see it.

As a pastor, I strongly disagree with any notion that the vaccination is a precursor to the ‘mark of the beast’.  This view does not hold credibility with Biblical scholars.  It is unfortunate that popular level fictional books like the Left Behind series, have caused some Christians to try to project current news events into their personal interpretation of the book of Revelation, or look for hidden modern meaning in Greek words. This is inconsistent with the expertise of Biblical language scholars and theologians.

The purpose of the next section of this article is to explain some of the pastoral, health and safety, and theological issues that churches need to consider. The intention is not to draw a conclusion yet, but to bring understanding to the complex issues, and to consider some missional responses.

Helpful theological views

Biblically, I cannot find any scripture that would prevent a decision to be vaccinated. However, there is biblical basis for respecting and including those who have come to a different personal decision. Reflecting on our Christian beliefs, these are a few other things to highlight at this time:

  • Jesus Christ and the church: The people of God (the church) are defined by faith in Jesus, not on any other external factor. There must be no form of division that excludes our identity of belonging in Christ.
  • People: Church is people, not the building, and not the method of gathering.  The practical way we conduct our church gatherings is less important than the people.
  • Gathering: Sunday morning gatherings represent one component of church activity, but not the entire picture. Therefore, reshaping the way we gather on Sunday may not affect our ultimate identity as God’s people. In fact, reshaping our practice may strengthen the church.
  • Great commission: Church is expressed through both gathering and going. God’s outward facing mission should be just as important as meeting together. Often our over-emphasis on gathering distorts our perspective of church, at the expense of the great commission.
  • Caring for the vulnerable: the people of God seek to care for the vulnerable and to provide the safest environment for all. This includes consideration of health recommendations.

Church decisions

With these things in mind, we seek to find a pathway forward amidst a pandemic.  We prayerfully seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit to lead us in this unique season, toward settings that will prioritise God’s great commission.  This may stretch all of us outside of our personal comfort zone. Ideally we want to uphold both unity and safety of all; to work within government guidelines without diminishing the work of the kingdom; and to respect individual decisions whilst best managing the community implications of those decisions.

One example of an excellent application of Biblical Christ-shaped church unity in this vaccination discussion is Pastor Ken Keyte’s study on Philippians.
https://baptistmag.org.nz/cross-shaped-unity-for-church-through-the-covid-19-protection-framework/

Church inclusion and vaccine certificates

When evaluating decisions on the basis of genuine health concerns, vaccine certificates are considered the safest option.  And currently the only option for large gatherings. It is important to note that churches already operate within health and safety restrictions.  Every building complies with Fire Safety regulations, which include a restriction on the size of our gatherings.  It is already within our framework to establish limitations on our gatherings based on health and safety factors.  COVID-19 is another example of a health situation that needs to be managed within our church settings, whereby we seek to follow the recommendation of health professionals.  Some churches have already made a decision to use vaccine certificates. I understand and accept their decision, and the desire to care for people in this way.

Many alternative suggestions would compromise the leadership integrity of those who are required to deliver maximum safety for the vulnerable within the law.  Senior pastors hold personal liability for the safety for all who participate, in every church related setting. It is not realistic for an individual to expect a church to break the law, or to overlook general health guidelines in order to accommodate their personal position.

However, at this point, I feel very uncomfortable with the use of vaccine certificates for Sunday services. While I understand the necessity from a health and safety viewpoint, there are pastoral and relational implications of this separation that need to be worked through collectively.

Under the Red light guidelines, large gatherings require a vaccine certificate. All other gatherings will be restricted to 25 people. Either we find other ways to care for the unvaccinated in different settings, as part of the church. Or we include everyone, and therefore choose to limit ourselves to gatherings of 25 for a season.

Right now, I could not embrace large all-inclusive settings with integrity, without breaking the law and/or compromising the genuine health concerns at stake.  I take this responsibility seriously. I hope that different options will soon become available, to enable safety in all-inclusive settings.

But in the meantime, my recommendation is to remain with online services and small group gatherings, even though this is very restrictive. This interim decision would provide us with time and further understanding to consider our decisions and care for each other as a church. This is a slower, but caring pathway forward.

So to summarise these complexities: at “red-light”, a decision to support vaccine certificates would exclude individuals from some gatherings.  A decision for full participation would exclude everyone from gathering. Individual choices have collective implications.  Prioritising certain personal freedoms may be inseparable from factors that affect collective freedoms.  Pastors risk compromising their responsibility to safety and care for the vulnerable. There is no one-size-fits all solution or adequate alternative yet. Amidst this tension, my conviction is that the pandemic is to blame, not parliament. Nor should frustration be directed toward those with differing views on vaccination. Jesus is calling us to walk in unity of heart, with an openness to listen and care for one another.

Time offers wisdom

The perception of urgency is unhelpful. Given that we cannot quickly go back to the way things were, it is worthwhile to take time to seek wisdom and discernment.  Much damage could be caused by rushing to the wrong decision.  With Christmas and summer holidays approaching, it makes sense to utilise the holiday period for this process.  In our setting, this involves prayer, listening to our church family, observing Baptist recommendations https://www.baptist.org.nz/covid19/faq/, and recognising government guidelines as they become clearer.

Loving God and loving others is the right starting point for this conversation.  The framework of this great command will lead to the right decision for each church context.  I trust that God will lead our church community collectively in His time, and I’m open to whatever that may look like. I’m also comfortable, that the best response might look different for each church setting, depending on the people within the church, and the people God is calling them to reach and to love. I hope that churches may be able to recognise and honour each other in the outcomes of their decision making …rather than assuming that any different conclusion to ours must be wrong, as we so often do.

A creative relational opportunity

My observation (possibly too simplistic) is that some churches are primarily defined by the ‘Sunday morning gathering in a building’; and some churches are primarily defined by ‘God’s people seeking to share God’s kingdom in their neighbourhood’.  I’m noticing that individuals and churches that identify closest with the first category seem the most threatened by the current circumstances. Whereas the second category are enthusiastically finding new opportunities to share Jesus, regardless of the circumstances.  Our church, realistically, is probably in the first category, and I’m wondering if God is inviting all of us to see this as an opportunity: to discover new ways to make disciples of all nations, in fresh new settings …a bit like the church in Acts.

During a season of discernment, there is also an opportunity to grow deeper in smaller group settings in local neighbourhoods.  This could strengthen participation, faith, discipleship and mission.  This could help us engage better with our local outward facing ministry in our communities.  Regardless of decisions about vaccine certificates, I believe we are being called to invest our best energy into smaller group settings in this season.

Reshaping our church through close-knit geographic settings, will in turn bring strength to the whole body, when we are able to gather together.

Summary

All of the issues raised here so far contribute to the decisions about church gatherings and vaccine certificates.  To summarise:
Societal issues

  • Our Christian beliefs inform our actions.
  • There is a health situation that needs to be managed in society and in the church.  We need to be attuned to the professional advice of the medical and scientific community.
  • The church needs to have a voice about societal issues, including advocating for more inclusive ways of managing COVID-19.
  • Christians should not break the law as they protest.  We need to avoid the ongoing damage being caused, which is affecting our witness.
  • We must not allow political opinion to distort our decisions on this health crisis.

Church decisions

  • Good theology and care for the whole community needs to shape our decisions.
  • Optimum safety is essential in church settings amidst this health crisis, and the church needs to abide by the law.
  • We need to respect and seek to care for individuals who have come to a different conclusion about vaccination.
  • At the same time, those who are unvaccinated need to be aware that this personal decision has an impact on others, because it is a health situation. Their personal choice will have a relational impact.
  • Time will enable collective wisdom and discernment.
  • Small group settings provide the best means to strengthen the church regardless of decisions about large gatherings.
  • The great commission should inspire and shape our actions.

Jesus calls all of us to walk in a stance of humility and surrender. And we can trust him to lead us in this journey.

Thank you for being a Christ-like community of people, who are choosing to listen and care for one another, as we prayerfully seek God’s direction in these areas.

Grace and peace,

Tim Palmer

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