No way! A disagreement pandemic.
The vaccine saves us, or not? If there is one thing the pandemic has brought us, it is an explosion of disagreements. Everybody seems to know better. Everyone has their own opinion.
What does this mean for when we get together as a church? How do we go about our differences? I propose not an answer, but a way. We will find that the gospel of Jesus Christ shows us this way. A way to discern and process this together. The way of truth, wisdom, and love. The Jesus Way.
If there ever was a time to walk this way it is now. Because this is the way we show the world the way out.
The way of truth, wisdom, and love
Some say the vaccine saves us, others are not so sure. Some say following the covid safety rules shows good citizenship, others don’t seem to mind. Some say God is sovereign so there is no risk in gathering, others say God is sovereign and he instituted the authorities. Some say it is just a pandemic, others say there is more going on that we can see. Some say the rules do more harm than good, others say these protect us. Some say the vaccine uses new technology and are nervous about that, others don’t seem to mind. Some say enough is enough, others prefer to wait a bit longer just to be sure.
I am sure we all agree that there is no one clear answer to all of the questions the pandemic has raised. I am sure you have heard so and so say this, and another article saying that. There is a website on this and a post on that. A myriad of voices and opinions, of which many claim to present the one answer sometimes substantiated with Bible verses. What are we to make of this as Christians? Clearly, Romans 13 plays into this, but how to balance that with for example Ephesians 5:19, which was hardly possible this year? How to balance courage and caution?
In this article, I will not present an answer. Wiser and more qualified people have attempted to answer some questions already (for example John Piper in Coronavirus and Christ). I will recommend a way; a way to discern and process this together. A way which I believe is biblical. The way of truth, wisdom, and love. The Jesus Way.
In a time when many distrust everything, it makes all the difference for us believers to know that there is truth that is TRUE: the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is the truth that saves us and sets us free. But you will find that Jesus and the New Testament writers were crystal clear about the fact that there would always be false teachers and prophets around, out to deceive believers and obscure the truth of the gospel (e.g. Matthew 24; Mark 13; 2 Corinthians 11; Galatians 3; Philippians 3; Colossians 2; 1 Timothy 1 and 4; 2 Timothy 3; 2 Peter 2; 1 John 4; 2 John; 3 John; Jude; Revelation 13 and 19).
Classic examples of false teaching, which are still around today, are the attempts to obscure grace by preaching either legalism or licentiousness. And the undermining of the Person of Christ, by doubting either his humanity or his divinity, which lead to false explanations of God who is Trinity. Even today there are ‘Christian’ leaders who say that God does not judge because he is love, thereby inadvertently saying that Jesus did not have to die on the cross. And other ‘pastors’ who say that Jesus was only a wise teacher who served us with inspiration, not salvation, so don’t worry too much about holiness.
Then there have been many who have claimed to be prophets and led people astray with disastrous results. Often this has been around claiming to know when Jesus would return (1). Jesus and the apostles talked straight about truth; which includes both doctrine (truth defined) and ethics (truth lived out). They confronted what was false head-on. And they used strong language to make the point (read for example Jude). They took a stand for truth. But when there were matters that were not essential to the truth of the gospel, like eating particular foods, drinking wine, or on which day the church should gather, they said not to pass judgment on one another. Even not to put a stumbling block in the way of a fellow believer, as you wouldn’t want someone to sin against his or her conscience (Romans 14).
How do we know whether a matter is essential to the truth of the gospel or not? How do we know what is right and wrong about current issues? When do we judge and when don’t we judge? We will need to work this out together with humility towards God and one another (Philippians 2:12), humility towards church history, humility towards the wider church and humility towards the leadership of our local church and the church family whose job it is to teach sound doctrine, which provides clarity and safety (Ephesians 4:11-16; 2 Timothy 4:1-5). And we will need wisdom.
But what is wisdom? J.I. Packer, in his book Knowing God, helpfully points out that wisdom is not an ability to see why God has done what he has done in a particular case, and what he is going to do next. That kind of thinking burns you out trying to figure out which sign says what, where you should go, whether you took the right turn in life. Yes, God can give unusual direction to our lives, for example through prophecy or a sense of calling. But that is different from trying to read a message about God’s secret purposes in every unusual thing that happens to us.
J.I. Packer continues to describe what wisdom is, drawing from Ecclesiastes: “The real basis of wisdom is a frank acknowledgment that this world’s course is enigmatic, that much of what happens is quite inexplicable to us, and that most occurrences ‘under the sun’ bear no outward sign of a rational, moral God ordering them at all… The truth is that God in his wisdom, to make and keep us humble and to teach us to walk by faith, has hidden from us almost everything that we should like to know about the providential purposes which he is working out in the churches and in our own lives.”
So what is wisdom? From Ecclesiastes: “Fear God and keep his commandments (12:13); guard your steps, draw near to listen, be not rash with your mouth, let your words be few, let not your mouth lead you into sin (5:1-7); do good (3:12); remember that God will someday judge you, so avoid, even in secret, things of which you will be ashamed when they come to light (11:9, 12:14). Live in the present, and enjoy it thoroughly; present pleasures are God’s good gifts (7:14, 9:7, 11:9). Seek grace to work hard at whatever life calls you to do and enjoy
your work as you do it (2:24, 3:12, 5:18, 8:15, 9:10). Leave to God its issues; let him measure its ultimate worth; your part is to use all the good sense and enterprise at your command in exploiting the opportunities that lie before you (11:1-6).”
God who made this enigmatic and complex world, who orchestrated the exodus and the cross, knows what he is doing and does it all well, even if for the moment he hides his hand. We can trust him. We can rejoice in him. We can thank him. Even when we cannot discern his path. Even when we live with questions.
To be wise is to confess the wisdom of God and to show determination to hold onto him no matter what. This kind of wisdom helps us not to be weighed down by the unknown or paralysed by fear or give up on it altogether (Psalm 112:7; 2 Corinthians 4:7-10). I believe this is what Jesus meant with “stay awake” when he talked about his imminent return (Matthew 24:42). This wisdom helps us to make the most of every day, faith-wise. It is realistic yet filled with hope. It is about resting in God’s sovereignty yet stewarding our talents diligently. It helps us to seize every opportunity to do good, to pursue holiness, to always be of good courage, to shine God’s light wherever we are, and to hold onto truth with our eyes open.
We are to look carefully at how we walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil (Ephesians 5:15-16). So lots of wisdom is required. And the great thing is that when we realise our lack of wisdom, we may ask God who promises to give it generously (James 1:5)!
So, we have found that there are essentials and non-essentials of truth and that both require different responses. We unpacked the wonder of wisdom and discovered we desperately need it. But if we had all truth and all wisdom yet not love, we would be nothing (1 Corinthians 13:2). Paul’s most quoted words usually end up at a wedding, but are more fitting for our situation:
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corinthians 13:4–7)
How do we exchange views with someone who refuses to be vaccinated? Or someone who feels unsafe even when restrictions have been lifted? Or someone who says enough is enough? How do we react to a brother or sister who is outspoken or confused or unsure? How do we go about all our concerns and opinions and questions or lack of any of these?
Love is the way, yet not love as a feeling that comes and goes. Not love that seeks to make a point, to push, to be loud and heard. No. This is about divine love. This is sacrificial love. This is the Father’s love shown by Christ’s example, which the Spirit empowers us to know and share (Ephesians 3:14-21). Love that is slow to speak and quick to listen. Love that seeks to live a quiet life yet also loves truth and hates conceit. Love that lays down your life for your brothers and sisters, but also love that casts out fear. Love that compels you to help and give and give and give. Love that makes you vulnerable, because you might get hurt, yet is courageous because it endures all things. Love that pursues unity relentlessly. And love that counts others more significant than yourself (1 Corinthians 13; Philippians 2:3-4; 1 Thessalonians 4:11; James 1:19; 1 John).
If there ever was a time to obey the commandment to love like this, it is now. Let’s walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us (Ephesians 5:2).
The Jesus Way
In this time of confusion and conflict, of discomfort and disunity, of suffering and strife, the church has a profoundly different message: the gospel of Jesus Christ. This truth directs us to the right way, God’s wisdom teaches us how to walk that way, and divine love helps us to walk together with God and with one another. This is how we show the world the way out: it is the Jesus Way (Acts 9:2, 24:14 and 22).
How do we do this? Let’s start with prayer. Below you can find a wisdom Psalm and hymn that help us to humbly pray the Jesus Way: “O grant us wisdom from above, to pray for peace and to cling to love”.
Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
You return man to dust
and say, “Return, O children of man!”
For a thousand years in your sight
are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night.
You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning:
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.
For we are brought to an end by your anger; by your wrath we are dismayed.
You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your presence.
For all our days pass away under your wrath; we bring our years to an end like a sigh.
The years of our life are seventy,
or even by reason of strength eighty;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.
Who considers the power of your anger,
and your wrath according to the fear of you?
So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom.
Return, O LORD! How long?
Have pity on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, and for as many years as we have seen evil.
Let your work be shown to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favour of the Lord our God be upon us,
and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!
The perfect wisdom of our God Revealed in all the universe:
All things created by His hand
And held together at His command. He knows the mysteries of the seas, The secrets of the stars are His;
He guides the planets on their way
And turns the earth through another day.
The matchless wisdom of His ways That mark the path of righteousness; His word a lamp unto my feet,
His Spirit teaching and guiding me. And O the mystery of the cross,
That God should suffer for the lost,
So that the fool might shame the wise, And all the glory might go to Christ!
O grant me wisdom from above,
To pray for peace and cling to love, And teach me humbly to receive
The sun and rain of Your sovereignty. Each strand of sorrow has a place Within this tapestry of grace;
So through the trials I choose to say: “Your perfect will in Your perfect way.”
(1) A theme that often returns when the world is in crisis, for example: We’ve Been Here Before: Lessons from the Church’s Responses to the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919
J.I. Packer, Knowing God, 1973
John Piper, Coronavirus and Christ, DesiringGod, 2020
Stuart Townend & Keith Getty, The perfect wisdom of our God, 2011