On Masks, Vaccines, and Church Unity
The church membership vows in my own denomination (the PCA) include this passage where we “promise to study [the] purity and peace” of the church. One of the premier ways we can do that as Christians is to reflect deeply and well upon the unity of the church, especially when it comes to what is meant to unite us.
In a sense, I feel united to others who share similar preferences to me. We feel solidarity and unity with different people for different reasons. We could make the mistake of thinking that the unity of the church is supposed to be like that, where we mistakenly say, “We are united together as long as we see things the same way or like the same things.”
But the unity of the church is different.
Believers have a closer, objective unity. Paul speaks to unity in a couple of places. In Romans 12:5 he tells us that “we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” So even though there are lots of us, we’re united in what? “In Christ.” Christ is the one who unites us. We place our faith in Christ, we’re indwelt by the Spirit, and we are united to our brothers and sisters in Christ, forming a new family. That is God’s plan. Paul says something similar in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Paul rattles off the biggest differences that can be imagined between believers in Jesus, and his answer is, “Those true differences don’t divide us, because we are in Christ.” Being in Christ makes all the difference. Recall what Paul tells us in Romans 14:10: “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.”
When the pandemic first began, many elders likely sensed that the unity of their churches was about to be tested. This past year has borne that suspicion out, as nearly every pastor has felt himself pulled in all directions by people that he knew on every side to be loving and reasonable people.
As hard as 2020 was, I’m convinced that we are entering a new phase that could be equally challenging, where we’ve started to see vaccinated folks returning who have been worshiping on zoom for over a year now. This is an incredible blessing, but it also seems like a moment where the unity of Christians actually gets tested in a potentially more tangible and relational way, because the ways Christians receive each other in this moment in some ways shows what we believe really unites us to each other. We must choose: are we united by Christ? Or are we united by our views on masks, and our views on vaccines?
In a sense, it’s almost as though over the course of the past year two different congregations were forming throughout every church in America: one that was meeting in person, and one that was meeting on the zoom call, with very little overlap between. Now vaccines are flowing, people are coming back, and we’re gradually gathering together again. In this moment, hurtful things can be said—intentionally or otherwise. And these issues are so intense that the hurt is difficult to hide.
It is important that Christians display our unity in Christ by the thoughtful charity we show. We assume the best about each other, not the worst. For example, if someone has been in worship all this time and/or is not wearing a mask, love, charity, and unity means no one should assume this is a person who hates their neighbor, wants all their loved ones to die, or is coldhearted about others — instead we assume they have what they believe are good reasons, even if we disagree.
Likewise, if someone hasn’t been in worship for over a year, we assume they have been looking out for others in the best way they knew how. “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother?”
How should we speak with each other? Rather than politics and masks, let’s make Christ the substance of our conversations, especially as we gather as a church. Let’s discuss this week’s sermon. Let’s praise God for the various ways he has really cared for us and protected our souls in what could have been a soul-wrecking season. Let’s share our own prayer requests and talk about blessings God has shown us during this time. Let’s exalt Christ, in other words.
There is a lot of potential for pain and nastiness right now. Another pastor told me that during the pandemic a member of their church was going around before and after services, directly telling people in masks that they didn’t have enough faith and that removing the mask was a sign of true faith. Other pastors have told me this is a common sentiment as well among some. This arises from pride: “I have spiritual strength, and you are weak. I am brave and you are a coward.” And yet Jesus says that Christians are to be people who are “poor in spirit.”
If someone returns to worship but is still wearing a mask, Christians ought not speak to them (or about them!) as though mask wearing is a sign of faithlessness or unbelief. That is the worst possible interpretation that a person could make about another believer on a secondary issue. Scripture tells us that love “believes all things,” and “hopes all things.” Let us assume the best and not the worst.
The logic of the “I have faith and you don’t” argument is unfair and uncharitable in the extreme. It assumes fear on the part of the mask wearer, and it assumes that taking precautions in general is foolish or excessive. However, everyone I know puts on a seatbelt when they drive their car. That seatbelt isn’t a sign of unbelief, nor is locking one’s front door at night. If someone thinks the mask is beneficial, then it isn’t a sign of faithlessness or cowardice. Many are wearing masks for reasons others may not even know – perhaps they are doing it for others, believing that it helps prevent the unknowing spread of germs. Perhaps they have sick family members they are caring for and do not want to carry germs back to their vulnerable loved ones. We must think the best of each other, not the worst. Each time a Christian is tempted to judge, it’s worth asking the question, “what is the best thing I can assume about this brother or sister in this moment?” and then seize hold of that. Those on the more “cautious” side of things should be encouraged to think of those on the “less cautious” end of things in the same way.
I know that I am being almost uncomfortably direct here, and I know that drawing attention to these things comes with its own dangers, but I am jealous to defend the unity of the church, and especially those at home who even now want to return but wonder how they will be treated upon their eventual return. We will not (and need not) be united in our politics, our views of masks, our views on vaccines, or any other secondary issue. But we are all “one in Christ” by God’s design, which is a greater, deeper, more lasting unity.
In this beautiful new phase where zoom participants and those who have been in person for some time start to meld back together corporately, it is very important that Christians love each other in the extreme and that they rejoice in each other without hesitation. We should receive each other the way Christ receives us, and not dispute over secondary things. Even if they are important, they are still not worth damaging the purity and peace of the church over.
“Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.” (Romans 12:10)
“Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” (1 John 4:11)
Adam Parker is the Senior Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Beaverton, Oregon. He is the husband of Arryn and a father of four. He is a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS.
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"Where Jesus Is" by Terry Johnson
"No Social Distance in Heaven" by Aaron Denlinger
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The Church: One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic by Richard Phillips, Philip Ryken, & Mark Dever
Header image courtesy of Vecteezy.