The past few weeks have been tricky for Christians of a conservative stripe as we grapple with difficult questions over how our government is responding to the building Covid spread here in NSW. While there is a lot of noise out there, two strands of concern are now clear for some amongst us; that the lockdown is doing far more harm than good and that the rapidly mounting campaign to see us all vaccinated is an unwarranted and even dangerous imposition upon us. Is the endorsement by Christian leaders of the more mainstream approach to these things (in favour of lockdown and vaccines) a sign of care for each other? Or an unrighteous coercion of fellow believers?
The question is a good one to ask and one with a respectable pedigree amongst Christians, particularly protestants. The principle of justification by faith alone ought to make us naturally resistant to the imposition of any rule upon the Christian; nobody wants to promote legalism. But we also know that there’s more to be said. New Testament ethics move us away from legalism (Mark 3:4) and towards a principle of love (Rom. 13:8). At the same time this doesn’t mean we are now swimming in a non-descript ethical soup of love with no further guidance. The same anti-legalism pro-love Scriptures are full of practical application and denouncement of sin, particularly in the pastorals which speak primarily to the very Christian leaders who are now charged with coercion.
So, for example, I’ve recently been reading through Titus and was particularly struck by the following:
Titus 3:1 Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, 2 to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone.
I’m struck for the following reasons:
- In the wider flow of Titus this is one of several quite clear instructions. Paul is very concerned with the cantankerous nature of the Cretans and takes a firm response.
- The doctrinal foundation of this firm response is a reminder of the grace of God in the coming of Jesus. This, above all, is what Paul urges Titus to stress to the Cretan church. But he is to stress this “so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good.” (Tit. 3:8). In the context this “doing what is good” has much to do with how Christians conduct themselves as part of society. This is one of the main themes of Titus, that “knowledge of the truth” [of the gospel] leads to “godliness” (Tit. 1:1).
- One outcome of this instruction is a benefit for the wider society. Paul finishes in this way, “These things are excellent and profitable for everyone.” (Tit. 3:8). Again, in the context the “everyone” is clearly the general population of Crete.
The question we might now ask is whether Paul and Titus could be accused of coercion? Or is it simply care of Christians and the wider society? When Paul instructs Titus to “stress these things” which is it? At this moment I’m not making an argument about the details of the covid issue but simply asking us to step back and consider the principle of the matter. Is it not the case that the Apostolic instruction for the church leader is that there is a place to insist upon not only correct doctrine when it comes to grace, but also upon the application of that truth as obedient godly living. And that for the sake of the entire population?
But what of Covid?
If we can agree the principle, how should we (if at all) apply it to the controversies over Covid? As I’ve already observed, it seems that there are two main areas of contention: lockdowns and the vaccine.
The prevailing argument against lockdowns (setting aside the nonsensical suggestion that Covid is all one big hoax) is that the damage that lockdowns do is far in excess of what has been mitigated. There is certainly no doubt that shutting down much of what we do has some serious negative consequences. Jobs are lost and lives and devastated. This is undisputed. But what of the alternative?
The arguments that some make “look, we’ve only had a few deaths and then mostly in the elderly who were going to die anyway) can sound compelling but they need to contend with a couple of counters. First, it is entirely reasonable to note that the numbers of deaths has been few because of the measures taken. Second, and less compelling logically but still emotionally gripping, is the fact that even the death of an old person a short time, on average, before when they would have passed is a tragedy. Life is life. And life in the image of God all the more. Is the life of the elderly somehow less worth preserving? I think that when the rapidly upcoming NSW euthanasia debate is upon us we will be saying something very different.
Still, we can begin to make some arguments by comparing Australia to other countries that were not as successful as us in our attempts to keep covid largely at bay. The UK is the obvious example. Here is a country who’s government was keen to end restrictions. “Freedom Day” has now come in the UK, albeit delayed. This was not a government that rejoiced at lockdown, but nevertheless they implemented it when they thought it necessary. Still, things got away from them.
At the time of writing the statistics (searched on google) tell us that the UK had 5.95m cases of Covid and 130k deaths in a population of roughly 66.65m. Were those same rates to work out in Australia with it’s own population of 25.36m we would have recorded 2.26m cases and 49,464 deaths. The number of hospitalisations would have been staggering. To date Australia has actually seen 35,000 cases and just short of 1,000 deaths.
We could turn to other countries like India to see what can happen when there is little effective control of the population in this crisis. When the delta strain started to really run through that country we began hearing tragic stories in our own church family, many of whom come from the sub-continent.
Now, of course, there have been other factors too. Australia’s border policy has no doubt prevented much harm. Ultimately it’s hard to work out exactly what part each component played. But when faced with the choice between almost 50,000 deaths across Australia and our actual tally of 1,000 I think it’s hard to insist that lockdowns ought not to occur. We are rightly up in arms about the c. 80k abortion deaths every year in our country. What would we be prepared to do to save an equivalent number? At the time of writing NSW is grappling with the delta variant, an obviously highly contagious and far more dangerous mutation of covid. The spread of those in hospital and especially in the ICU is telling. More young people, even in their 20s and 30s. The latest a young man who was a regular for his local football club, the same club where my children played. Covid appears to have triggered an underlying heart condition, something that running up and down the pitch for 90 minutes solid every week at training and then every Saturday on match day could never achieve. How many more if we had not locked down?
So what about the vaccines? Here the arguments presented are slightly different. Perhaps the most irenic I’ve read is Brett Lee-Price’s “Be Jabbed or Don’t Be Jabbed“,
Now, this is not to say that ministers can not necessarily air their opinion on this subject, like on other topics, but, and I cannot emphasize this enough, it should never be in a way where there is an imposition on someone to heed and obey. This is a critical misutilization of their position as they are speaking on matters outside the area to which they’ve been granted authority to speak. Indeed, one could quite well argue that such ministers, well-meaning or not, are using their platform, a platform solely granted by Christ, to impose their own personal views. This cannot and should never be accepted by Christians — no matter how much they may agree with the specific position being articulated.
The “area to which they’ve been granted authority to speak“, Brett argues, is the spread of the gospel, both in conversion and edification (citing Eph. 4:11-13 and Matt. 28:18-20). “Any teaching or imposition on matters beyond this is in excess of this authority and is, quite frankly, an overstep.”
I’m very sympathetic to this approach and it resonates with me. I agree with it. The question, however, is where the boundaries of edification lie. What does the “maturity” of Eph. 4:13 that the pastor is to work towards in his flock look like? I suggest a case can be made that it includes the encouragement to be vaccinated. But for the right reasons. Compulsion is out of the question, while also understanding that compulsion can come in various forms.
First, a bit of statistics. Knowing Brett as I do I’m quite sure we will be in furious agreement on the first stage of my argument. Based on the statistics there is a compelling reason for most adults to get the vaccine. Simply put, the personal risk of a side effect from vaccination is significantly less than the risk of remaining unvaccinated. This has, of course, been a more nuanced calculation for much of the past 18 months in Australia precisely because government policies appear to have succeeded in keeping Covid mostly in check. The less covid in Australia, the less risk we will catch it and the less risk we will end up in hospital or even worse. Which is perhaps one reason for the more relaxed approach the Australian government took over the difficulties in procuring sufficient doses.
Of course, once the delta strain cut loose all the maths changed. It changed most notably on the question of Astra Zeneca which used to be recommended only for the over 60s on the basis that the side effect risks for younger adults outweighed the benefits. But as delta has spread so the same equation looks different. Same calculation, but different numbers going in. Yes, AZ remains more risky than Pfizer for the under 60s and especially the much younger. But it only takes repeated days of 200+ new cases to tip that balance over. It now, on the numbers, makes sense to be providing AZ for all adults. And (controversially now) perhaps also makes sense for the Chief Health Officer in Queensland to continue to suggest that it’s not appropriate in that state with its much lower covid numbers (even if the messaging has been poor).
More than the simple question of outcomes for ourselves and our nearest, there is the wider consideration that vaccination means we are far less likely to pass on an infection to someone else; far less likely to be the vector that leads someone else to end up in the ICU.
So faced with these stats that Brett and I (I assume) agree on what is the pastor to do? This is a real issue. More and more of our church members are coming to me asking for a word of advice. What to say to them?
Titus, Pastoring and Covid
We’re not (most of us) medical doctors. We’re pastors. But we’re being asked to offer a word of advice on a medical issue. If not medicine then it will be something else. How do I handle my difficult relationship with my parents? What do I do in my marriage? How should I deal with this situation in the workplace? What job should I take? Should I move home? The questions keep coming.
Most (but not all) are not moral issues. They are matters of wisdom. But wisdom is an important thing to get right. We don’t want to advocate foolishness. We urge godliness in the place of disobedience. And surely we press people towards wisdom and not folly? Sometimes there is a clear word in the Scripture. Sometimes there are just principles to be applied. The Apostle Paul was well aware of this when he told the Romans,
love is the fulfillment of the law
But there are other principles too that flow from this. One we saw earlier was that of what is “excellent and profitable for everyone” (Tit. 3:8). This is, of course, an application of the more general law of “love your neighbour” and it is also worth noting at this point that such love is, by nature, prepared to bear a cost. As pastors we encourage our flock to not be self-serving but to value others more highly than themselves. At times that means challenging them on something. This is all good and godly and as it should be, even when it is difficult to get perfectly correct in practice.
Once again, what is striking about Paul’s instruction to Titus is that he tells him to stress things and insist upon them. He tells Timothy much the same. So would the encouragement, the urging to get vaccinated then be included? I think we can make an argument that it should.
First, note that this is not an instruction. The pastor who says to his flock “you must be vaccinated” has overstepped his authority. At least he has at the moment. If Covid were to rage through Australia and the vaccine be freely available then the law of love might almost become compelling. But that is not the case here.
Nevertheless, I think it is entirely reasonable to argue that the pastor who encourages his flock to get the vaccine (subject to the obvious risk calculations around young people and AZ) encourages them to do a wise and loving thing, flowing from the other-person centred merciful gospel (Tit. 3:5) and “excellent and profitable for everyone” (Tit. 3:8). Historically this has always been the approach that we’ve taken; the care of others. We rescued babies left by our Roman neighbours to die in the cold. We made hospitals and cared for the sick when no-one else would go near them. None of this was anything but costly.
Then there is the question of care of self. While not a major topic in the Scriptures, personal health is not unimportant. Paul reminds Timothy that physical exercise is of some value (1Tim. 4:8) and prescribes his daily medicinal (1Tim. 5:23). A sick Timothy cannot care for others.
I would go further. It is part of the loving care of a pastor for his flock to warn and even protect them against some of the foolish and simply incorrect arguments rolling around the vaccine question. The vaccine is clearly not “the mark of the beast” (and yes, I’ve been asked exactly that question by those in my pastoral care). Nor is the argument that the mere existence of a risk means we ought not to take the vaccine in any way helpful. In fact it’s downright dangerous. It will lead some of our more vulnerable members leaving themselves horribly exposed and make them much more likely to expose others. Put it another way, I trust we would all urge people to wear seatbelts even if the law did not require it. The fact that they leave terrible bruising in an accident is hardly an argument against such a position.
If we want to encourage those entrusted to us to look to Jesus’ sacrificial love and care of us, and then model that in our own lives, then why would we not encourage them to carefully consider these things and gently steer them in a certain direction? Most pastors tell of how their congregations yearn for application, for the practical outworking of the deep truths they hear from the pulpit. Now the moment arrives, is there not a place for such wisdom, properly communicated? I’m not saying it’s easy, but I think it’s worth reconsidering. As is our approach to lockdowns, on the same principles.
Paul tells Titus to insist upon the grace of God that leads to obedience (the love of others) that in turn is for the good of society. Within that there is, surely, a place for encouraging our flock to seriously consider vaccination and be responsible during the lockdown. And most certainly a duty to protect them from those who would persuade them to risk their welfare and that of others.