We find ourselves in difficult times indeed. So far, it’s been hard, but mostly straightforward for churches. Mainly because it has been one rule for all. Now we have been told that churches can return to meeting together when we reach 70% vaccination rate anticipated to be October 17th. However, it’s only for those who have been double vaccinated. It has begged a lot of important questions and I don’t want to simply give the road map for re-entry without a theological framework because this is truly a discipleship moment for our church.
I want to begin by acknowledging that our society has been under a lot of pressure these last five years. We have had various important social movements – Me Too, Black Lives Matter, debates on Sex and Gender, American politics – and now COVID vaccination restrictions.
In addition, we have also had fires, droughts, floods and mice plagues. Then came lengthy lockdowns, widespread fatigue, poor mental health, an overstretched health system, exhausted health workers, postponements of serious medical treatments, the rise of domestic violence and addictions, unemployment stress from the economic downturn and government policies such as ‘no jab, no job’. We are facing unique challenges both as a community and as a church. So how do we go forward and glorify God with these added government restrictions?
The Archbishop has given us the freedom to come back or delay. Like every other church, the leadership team is struggling because there is a clash of biblical principles. It’s the perfect storm of issues with growing tension points. The bible treasures a number of truths, and it’s important to remember not one truth stands alone. We need to do more than just quote one bible verse. When the devil quoted scripture, Jesus’ response was “but the scriptures also say…”.
I once heard a definition of a fundamentalist: “Someone who treats a partial truth like it was the whole truth.” So, what does the bible value that speaks into our situation? The six below points are not in any order.
1. The bible values the gathering of God’s people.
God commands us to not forsake meeting with one another as some were in the habit of doing (Heb 10:25). The context is of those who were choosing to not attend the gathering. As I often say MBM online is important but it’s not church, it’s a ministry of the word. It ought to grieve us that we can’t all gather as God’s people to encourage each other, especially when so many are vulnerable. And yet it’s not an absolute value, since you rightly miss church when you are sick, or when work calls you out for an emergency.
2. The bible values the unity of the church.
We are one in Christ. Galatians 3:28 states, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, (vaccinated or unvaccinated) for you are all one in Christ Jesus, “I truly hope you feel the grief of all of us not being allowed to meet together as God's family. But this does not mean we don’t put any limits on unity. For example, we don’t change our core teaching if some disagree and threaten to leave MBM. Unity is important, but it’s not the only truth.
3. The bible values obedience to the government.
The repeated teaching in the bible (Rom13:1-2,6, 1 Peter 2:13-14,1 Tim 2:2) is that we are to submit, pray, pay taxes and honour our governments, whether they are godly or not. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer was burnt at the stake under orders from Queen Mary in the sixteenth century. His second point in his final speech was to obey the government that was burning him at the stake and to do so ‘willingly and gladly without murmur or grudging.’
Why was Cranmer burnt at the stake? Because he was disobeying the government when it came to teaching God's word. Acts 5:29 is clear that “We must obey God rather than human beings!” I said to my son who is a pastor that he may well go to prison for teaching parts of the bible before he dies and Jesus wants him to count that persecution as a privilege (Matt 5:11). However, I don’t see COVID restrictions as Christian persecution, for all people are impacted by them not just believers.
4. The bible wants us to do good to all people, especially those in the household of faith (Gal 6:10).
Our love must extend to how we manage the impact of our health on others. We know our hospitals are at breaking point. Some health workers from church tell us firsthand they are working long shifts. They are exhausted, wards are full, and other medical procedures have been postponed.
We should be conscious of how our health impacts others at church. While I don’t give medical advice as a Pastor where health issues impact church life we take advice from doctors we know and trust. This has been our policy for thirty years at MBM. That is why we are a nut-aware church, or why we tell parents when their child is sick (green runny nose, rash, temperature, or conjunctivitis) they should not bring their kids to church. But the difference here is that the unvaccinated who are healthy can feel like they are viewed as if they are sick and unclean.
5. The bible values respecting conscience and conscientious objections.
We worship a God who understands that not every Christian is going to agree on everything. We are to respect and even protect each other's consciences and choices, even if we think they are wrong.
You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. ~Romans 14:10
And yet, conscience and individual freedom are not absolutes. You can have a clear conscience and be completely wrong. A person who genuinely believes in the prosperity gospel will be loved at MBM but will not be given a teaching platform.
6. The bible values our witness before a watching world.
We should care about how we are seen by the world. In 1 Tim 6:1, slaves were to submit to their masters. Why? So that the name of God and the good news of Jesus would not be slandered. We should be concerned to make Jesus look good before a watching world, as individuals and as a church. The only thing is, the world consists of different people who are offended by different positions. As a church, we can’t “be all things to all people.”
So, these are some of the issues that push against each other; the gathering and unity of God’s people, obeying the government and obeying God, showing loving concern for the health of our church and community, guarding our individual conscience and choices, and watching how we live before a watching world.
It’s worth remembering it is not a problem unique to MBM. Every pastor, in every church in Sydney, is facing these same issues and very few think there is an easy answer.
Road Map for re-entry
We thought it would be helpful to lay out a road map to deal with uncertainty.
First and foremost because we feel the grief of not having all of us able to attend church because of the restrictions. There are also complications with running MBM kids church, as well as a delay for some still waiting for their second dose.
We are hopeful that restrictions may be lifted beyond 80% vaccination rate but there is no assurance of this happening.
1. If the restrictions are not lifted we wait and NOT meet for five Sundays commencing from October 17 for the sake of those who can't attend.
2. If the restrictions have NOT been lifted we will reluctantly return by November 21st and gather according to government restrictions.
At this point, we want to at least give the majority the opportunity to meet for their good and we want to give non-Christians the opportunity to come to church and hear the gospel.
At that point we hope to start live streaming our services for two groups; those who can't meet because of government restrictions and those who can't meet because of health concerns
3. If the government removes restrictions and allow us all to meet together beforehand we will meet earlier.
If the government allows separate vaccinated and unvaccinated gatherings we will reluctantly consider it, but only as a temporary measure.
Please note that this is not a policy for MBM South West who, as we have announced earlier this year, will become independent in October under the name of, ‘The Church of the Risen King Jesus’.
More information will be forthcoming for MBM Youth and Growth Groups
Whatever road we take there is no soft landing and we hope, pray and have requested the government to lift restrictions as soon as possible. The sad reality is that regardless of government restrictions, every option available to us either now or later excludes somebody
You may be saying;
“Why should I miss out on meeting together for five weeks for the sake of others who choose not to get vaccinated?” Or
“Why should others meet when we who are a part of MBM are kept from the gathering because we are vaccine-hesitant for a medical reason?”
For a moment I ask you to ignore the government law and the MBM road map. I want you to take to heart a key truth that “love limits our liberty”.
Love Limits our Liberty
In Philippians 2, we are called to “value others above yourselves” Then Paul grounds the reason in Christ's humility.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! ~Philippians 2:5-8
There it is! Christ did not use his rights for his own advantage. Rather he went from heaven to earth and from God to the God/man to death on a cross for us. The one who has issued the command to “value others above ourselves”, has led the way. If you are not used to applying this principle in your private life, you may find it hard in your church life.
A Matter of the Heart
As with all truth, it begins in the heart. Can I respectfully place a challenge to us all?
And let us pray that it will not be long before restrictions are removed. The challenge for any church or society is how the majority treats the minority. And who should know this better than we Christians who are in the minority?
Make no mistake there are godly people on both sides of the vaccine debate. And both sides of the debate have said things they need to apologise for and have. We don’t get to postpone godliness in a crisis.
After the recent Parramatta and Penrith semi-final NRL game, some of the players from both teams prayed together in a huddle at the end of the game. They knew their first identity is not their team but their Father in heaven.
If you go MBM Rooty Hill can I ask you to join us on zoom on Sunday (10:45am, 5pm) for question time and demonstrate the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
This is a time to examine our hearts. One brother shared with me how he has been angry at the other side. He knew he needed to deal with that anger and not let it become a root of bitterness.
I would also ask us all to check our motives; Before COVID restrictions…
Love must not be theoretical
The care of the church is the responsibility of every member. That is why there are fifty-seven ‘one another’ verses and the most frequent is “Love one another”. Make a call, send a meal, provide a care package, send flowers, go for a walk and take interest in others. Mark Boyley’s men group were paired off and walked in twos within the LGA to celebrate the end of term growth group.
For your mental health sake, can I suggest you cut back on your screen time. If your family is telling you that your response COVID restrictions are harming them please listen to them and take steps.
What should be our response to the government?
The government is given by God to restrain our wickedness. In our system, the voice of the people is given by God to restrain government. As a good citizen who wants good government use all the channels available to speak up. Get to know your local state member when you see injustices and advocate for yourself and others. It is good for you; your mental health and you are less likely to demonise politicians.
I spoke to a number of folks who are vaccination hesitant due to medical reasons and who are losing their job. With their permission, I offered to call up our local state member for them. Two of them wrote very clear, respectful and direct letters to the minister. We must support those in our church who are losing their jobs. They are under tremendous pressure.
Our hope is ultimately in the gospel, not politics. Do you realise that Christians in Australia have lost every major public debate in the last fifty years? The last being the abortion laws in state parliament last year. We are simply becoming a more post-Christian culture.
Take heart God still rules! How did Christianity grow from eleven scared men in an upper room to become the state religion of the Roman Empire in under 300 years? It was the hope of resurrection. Christians were not afraid of death. Plagues and natural disasters caused chaos in the ancient world and life was unstable. However, Christianity offered a better explanation, a better story, the forgiveness of sins, a resurrected body and the promise of new creation.
Christians generally coped with disasters better, and they took care of their own and others. When plagues happened many stayed with the sick and some of those who survived became Christian. The world also saw how martyrs faced death with such confidence
The next couple of months will be very difficult and it made me wonder what our great grandparents had to face this time last century They went through World War 1, a pandemic, massive economic depression and then World War 2 and all within thirty years.
This is our time friend so let us not forget how great is the God we worship. When Israel was under siege and starvation was so bad that mothers were even tempted to eat their young we read the words of the prophet Jeremiah.
Because of the Lord’s great love, we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ~Lamentation 3:22-23
Let us pray
Precious Father, these are such difficult days. First COVID then lockdowns, and now restrictions. We beg you for relief.
Assure us of the truth that you rule in all decisions and promise to work in all things (good or bad) for our good including this season.
We are all in this storm, but we are not all in the same boat. Some are doing much tougher than others.
We uphold those who work in the health services, for those who have lost their jobs, for those whose mental health is deteriorating, for single parents and for those on their own.
Let those who suffer, not suffer in silence, and may their needs be made known. Comfort them at this time and use us to be that comfort.
Allows us to all gather safely together for our encouragement, as soon as possible.
We ask that as your holy people we would stand out from the world and make Jesus look good. We plead that we would support each other and not turn on each other.
Please give our leaders your Spirit that they may make wise decisions and grant us patience and a godly response when they don’t. Cause us all to lift our eyes off our screens and up to the heavens where you are ruling and reigning
Help us to grasp that you are for us, and with us. Come what may we will praise you for you are:
God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To you, Lord be honour and might forever.